Amid a sea of tourists and police, Christina Lara and Tiana Brunson walked down Ocean Drive last weekend with two water bottles filled with cognac and coke — a mix they called “Happy Juice.”
The friends from Los Angeles said they were in town over Memorial Day weekend to celebrate Brunson’s 40th birthday and spent the day smoking marijuana on the beach and strolling along the popular South Beach strip with their to-go cocktails.
Though a line of police cars parked behind them on Lummus Park — part of the routinely heavy police presence in the area for the holiday weekend — Lara said she felt like the police were taking a hands-off approach and only standing at the ready in case of more serious crimes.
“It seems like they’re not bothering people, they’re pretty much just here in case something happens,” Lara, 38, said.
Despite a beefed-up police presence and a “zero tolerance” declaration from the city’s politicians for public drinking and marijuana use, some tourists said police seemed to be hands-off in South Beach as arrests dropped over the Memorial Day weekend — a period marked over the last two decades by increased policing and tensions between residents and tourists.
In 2006, police made more than 1,000 arrests — 85% for misdemeanors such as drinking in public, disorderly conduct and other minor offenses — during what typically has been among the busiest party weekends of the year. But in recent years, arrest totals have dropped to around 100 every Memorial Day weekend as City Hall has tried to create a calmer atmosphere over the holiday and brought in an annual Air & Sea Show to make it more family-friendly.
This past weekend, police reported 90 arrests citywide — down from 156 last year, a police spokesman said.
Of the 90 arrests, police say there were just five for open containers in the South Beach entertainment district and two for smoking weed. That’s about the same as last year.
“It was obviously much calmer and with less disorder,” Mayor Dan Gelber said. “I’m hoping we turned a corner with Memorial Day weekend.”
A vote for zero tolerance and ‘assertive’ enforcement
Once a problem spot for the city, Memorial Day weekend has appeared to take a back seat to spring break’s month-long party in March. This spring, the city imposed a midnight curfew after five people were injured in back-to-back shootings on Ocean Drive. The prior year, the city issued an 8 p.m. curfew after officials said crowds overran South Beach.
Bracing for spring break this year, the City Commission took a vote in February supporting “zero tolerance” enforcement of open container and marijuana laws, among other local ordinance violations that commissioners and police say diminish residents’ quality of life.
Commissioners initially called for “aggressive” enforcement, which was concerning to Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Clements and Glendon Hall, chairman of the city’s Black Affairs Advisory Committee. The wording of the resolution they passed was later changed to “assertive.” But Hall also took issue with calling for zero-tolerance policing, which he said could be interpreted as an all-out crackdown that could target minorities.
“For some people it means that it’s open season,” Hall said at the commission meeting. “I just want to make sure that we’re not sending the wrong signal to the people that are coming here.”
Clements explained to commissioners that the department’s policy is for officers to approach anyone they see violating the laws against open containers and smoking weed in public and first ask that the person comply with the law before deciding whether to arrest them.
“The Miami Beach Police Department assertively addresses these violations and looks to achieve compliance through warnings or arrest if they deem it necessary to do so,” Clements said in an email.
Hall said he didn’t want a repeat of the rough arrests Miami Beach Police made last year under a commission ordinance making it illegal to “approach or remain within 20 feet” of an officer with the “intent to impede, provoke or harass” an officer engaged in lawful duties, after receiving a warning. Two men from New York were wrestled to the ground by police and arrested under the ordinance last summer as they filmed officers at a hotel. Five officers were charged with misdemeanor battery after prosecutors said they used excessive force in making arrests.
“I don’t want to see that,” Hall said at the February meeting. “Because the person who was using their phone recording the incident could have been me, could have been my son, and that’s unacceptable. We cannot have an atmosphere by which Black people do not feel that it’s safe or we are welcome to come to Miami Beach.”
Gelber said at the meeting that the city’s version of zero tolerance was not overly strict and would only lead to arrest if someone ignores police orders to either pour out their drink or put out their joint.
“When we talk about zero tolerance, I just think everybody ought to know that we don’t arrest somebody who has an open container, we tell them to pour it out and then if they choose not to, they’re asking essentially to be arrested,” he said.
Gelber emphasized that there was a massive police presence in the area and that the holiday weekend — which has been marred in years past by gun violence and the 2011 police killing of Raymond Herisse — went relatively smoothly for the city.
He said the purpose of the zero-tolerance ordinance is to create a sense of order in South Beach, where he has long sought to restrict alcohol sales in the area from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m., a policy goal commissioners are still discussing after voters signaled their support for a citywide rollback.
“We just don’t want it to become a raucous free-for-all where anything goes,” Gelber said.
‘Allowing tourists to be tourists’
Lara, the tourist from Los Angeles, said she thinks the zero-tolerance vote was tough talk meant to appease the older residents of Miami Beach looking for their elected leaders to do something about the party atmosphere.
“I think that’s just a look because they’re not doing it,” she said.
On Saturday evening, New York tourists Sadie Coleman and Amir Hemingway said they also noticed that visitors had extra leeway to drink or smoke this year.
“So many people are smoking weed,” Hemingway said while holding a vodka and tequila cocktail in a carved-out pineapple.
Coleman said she visited South Beach last year and felt the police were more forceful about the open container law.
“They were acting up, like ‘What are you drinking?’ ” Coleman said of her experience last year.
But this year felt different, she said.
“They’re allowing tourists to be tourists this year.”