How to control the partying on South Beach? As election season gets under way, no question is more critical in Miami Beach.
But is the answer more effective policing, or less alcohol?
City police have struggled mightily to control the mayhem in the South Beach entertainment district, a task made even more difficult in this first summer after lock down, as thousands of young revelers came to break free of COVID isolation. The summer pushed the department to exhaustion, and saw officers charged in the rough and unjustified arrests of two tourists in a hotel lobby.
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who is seeking his third term in November, has had enough. Gelber is pushing to ban alcohol sales after 2 a.m. It’s an idea he’s tried to get traction on before, without success. This time, he feels residents will rise to reclaim their city and buck the business interests that want the liquor to keep flowing until 5 a.m.
Tourist on tourist crime
“Policing a playground of people who come here from out of town is no longer sustainable,” Gelber told the Editorial Board, noting that most of the arrests police are making are for “tourist on tourist” crime. Makes sense. The Editorial Board has already said the 2 a.m. cutoff — with some exceptions — seems to be a reasonable compromise between tourism-driven businesses and locals who want to be able to enjoy their community safely. But that’s the issue before voters on Nov. 2 in a straw ballot.
Locals have long avoided South Beach. On Saturday nights this summer, the party zone often looked like an occupied territory, with military-style vehicles and police officers on every corner, including 10 borrowed from Miami-Dade. Patrol car lights were set to flash silently as the crowd partied nearby.
“We made it so we were able to respond within minutes to any incident,” Gelber said.
There may not have been an official policy, but there was certainly a zero-tolerance mentality in the air. Try anything wrong and officers could be there to squelch it in a sec. We get the need, but it was also disturbing to see, in no small part because so many of those revelers were young Black people.
No Bourbon Street
Gelber, whose campaign is largely focused on the city’s policing woes, says he wants Miami Beach to become something else, more of a cultural center than party central. Just as Fort Lauderdale and Coconut Grove transformed their images, Miami Beach, too, can take steps to stop attracting younger tourists, who spend less money and cause more problems than families and more mature visitors. The city can’t afford anything else, he said.
“I don’t want South Beach to become like Bourbon Street, a 24-hour party district,” he said.
It’s hard to dispute that sentiment.
Blanketing the city with police officers will no longer work, Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez told the Miami Beach Commission last week. “Policing in today’s world, it’s not zero tolerance,” Ramirez warned the city.
“And I need to make that very clear,” he added, “because whatever crime plan that you come up with, you cannot cause a lack of trust with the community. Whatever plan is developed has to have that buy-in to ensure that the community is safe and that no one is being singled out.”
Gelber agrees: “We can’t police our way out of this.” He’s right.
The idea that the area needs to be blanketed with officers comes from the perception, right or wrong, that the sale of liquor until 5 a.m. by some establishments is the problem. Voters will again be asked in a straw ballot. The last time they were asked, residents allowed the 5 a.m. liquor sales. But a lot has happened since that vote in 2017.
Not everyone agrees that late liquor sales and crime are intertwined. Miami Beach State Rep. Michael Grieco, wrote in an op-ed in the Miami Herald this week that blaming the booze is a red herring by a city administration that can’t figure out how to police the city for lack of leadership.
“Crime in Miami Beach is out of control,” Grieco wrote. “Our community is at its limit for the violence and tragedy we witness in our neighborhoods and the truth is, most crime in Miami Beach doesn’t wait until after 2 a.m.”
He says those revelers will just spill into the streets earlier and victimize local residents. By putting this issue on the ballot, Miami Beach has placed the decision in the right hands. Those most affected by the problems on South Beach must send a clear message to City Hall.
Slow the flow of liquor, or let the party go on?