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Police union takes action after spring break crowd traps officers in a maze of hundreds

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Though the Spring Break crowds on South Beach the first three weeks this year seem more subdued than last year, Miami Beach still chose to impose a “state of emergency” on Monday, March 21, 2022, that set a curfew and blocked some access to the causeways leading to the beach. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/TNS)


Charles Rabin

Miami Herald

MIAMI — Just one day before Miami Beach imposed new emergency restrictions on South Beach’s swelling spring break crowds, one of the city’s political powerhouses weighed in with an appeal to curb the partying.

The city’s police union posted a 10-second cellphone video on Twitter around noon Sunday, after a pair of weekend shootings ended three weeks of relative calm on South Beach. The clip showed several officers in golf carts trapped in a maze of hundreds of people dancing and yelling and holding up their phone cameras.

“The video is a snippet of the crowds and dangers we face. Officers are EXHAUSTED. The party needs to end,” tweeted Paul Ozaeta, president of the Beach’s Fraternal Order of Police. “City officials must take immediate and firm action to ensure the safety of officers and residents.”

On Monday, the city did, setting a new midnight curfew from Thursday to Sunday for the coming weekend and plans to study other actions.

In an interview with The Miami Herald, Ozaeta acknowledged this year’s spring break crowds have so far been more subdued than recent past years. Though police said they confiscated almost 40 weapons this past weekend, arrests are believed to be down. Police have yet to release any crime statistics. Social media hasn’t been inundated with street fight videos like last year.

Still, said the union president whose voice carries weight with elected city leaders, dangers remain for police and the public as long as municipal leaders continue to ignore his requests to hire more officers. The issue is pressing enough, Ozaeta said, that in some instances outnumbered cops chose to defer from making an arrest for safety reasons. So far, four officers have been injured.

“It’s spring break. We have all of the country coming to us. We’re a tourist mecca. We understand that,” Ozaeta said. “The thing is, at the end of the day, we need [to hire] more cops. Given the environment to cops I’m concerned the officers won’t want to stay here. We’re not butlers with badges, we’re public servants.”

The union president was referring to a statement last month in which senior police leadership announced a more hands-off approach with visitors, saying police would offer a “concierge-type” type service than the “zero tolerance” strategy some city leaders and residents demanded in the past.

On Monday, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber and City Manager Alina Hudak announced a “state of emergency” that included midnight curfews beginning Thursday and through the weekend. Hudak said the original order would only be for the upcoming weekend and that the item would be addressed by commissioners this week.

What wasn’t immediately clear: If the measures meant even more work for Ozaeta’s already “exhausted” staff. The union president said city leaders haven’t yet made it clear if causeway access would be limited, like last year when three were shut down over several weekends.

Police Chief Richard Clements said he hopes the curfew will “lessen the burden” on officers who have been working extended shifts since the middle of February, when the city’s enhanced policing plan began. The spring break crowds are expected to wane after the next two weekends.

The chief said he “cringed” when he saw video of an officer on an ATV with 10 to 15 feet of a shooting this weekend.

“That’s a problem,” Clements said.

Mayor Dan Gelber said that despite extended patrols, help from Miami-Dade Police, new tactics involving gang and robbery units, five innocent people have been shot the past two nights.

“We’ve had a handful of officers injured already. We can’t allow it to descend into chaos,” said the mayor. “It’s very hard to deter idiots and criminals from doing things.”

The city was hoping to avoid what many consider the “nuclear option,” after several Black Miami-Dade leaders argued it only made the 2021 spring break more problematic, leaving crowds with little to do as clubs were closed while the pandemic raged.

Last year, social media lit up with scenes of cops in SWAT uniforms holding high-powered weapons and confronting unruly crowds and fights erupting on street corners. It got so bad with most of the clubs closed that the partying spilled into residential neighborhoods. Police arrested some people for merely playing music and charged them with causing a riot.

Back then, Ozaeta also said his troops, many who were working 12 hour shifts or more with no weekends, were exhausted.

This year’s “state of emergency” announcement also came after a weekend in which four Miami Beach police officers were injured in a pair of accidents involving golf carts. In one instance a Mustang ran into a golf cart on Ocean Drive, which has been closed to traffic, and three officers were hurt. Another was injured on a cart on the beach at Lummus Park. None of them was hurt seriously.

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(Miami Herald Staff Writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.)

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©2022 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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