Fix­ing spring break

Panama City seeks so­lu­tion to al­co­hol-fu­eled wave of de­bauch­ery, crime

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

The first wave of bad news in this spring break mecca in­cluded a stabbing, a shoot­ing, as­saults, two ac­ci­den­tal deaths, rob­beries, drugs, un­der­age drink­ing and a miss­ing un­der­age girl.

Next came the ti­dal wave that changed the rules: Seven peo­ple were shot at a house party.

Emer­gency county com­mis­sion and city coun­cil meet­ings were held af­ter the March 28 shoot­ing. Res­i­dents, busi­ness own­ers and gov­ern­ment lead­ers filled seats, voiced con­cerns and of­fered so­lu­tions.

“I think ev­ery­one is in agree­ment — we’re kind of singing to the choir here — that what we know as spring break is in dire need of be­ing fixed,” Bay County Com­mis­sion Chair­man Guy Tun­nell said at a March 31 emer­gency meet­ing.

The county and city, both of which en­force laws in var­i­ous ar­eas of the beach, en­acted emer­gency or­di­nances. Ad­di­tional law en­force­ment agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Florida High­way Pa­trol, helped po­lice the area as the pop­u­la­tion swelled from 12,000 to 100,000 at the height of the 45-day-long party.

The most con­tro­ver­sial or­di­nance would have banned al­co­hol on the beach and in park­ing lots through April 18.

Bay County Sher­iff Frank McKei­then rec­om­mended the ban for this sea­son, but lo­cal law­mak­ers re­jected it. They sided with con­cerned busi­nesses and res­i­dents who feared an al­co­hol ban would prove fi­nan­cially dev­as­tat­ing.

Af­ter join­ing law en­force­ment pa­trols on the beach dur­ing spring break, Panama City Beach Coun­cil mem­ber Keith Curry changed his po­si­tion. He now fa­vors an al­co­hol ban on the beach.

“[Law en­force­ment] told me that this is the worst spring break they’ve ever seen,” said Mr. Curry, who added that coun­cil mem­bers would study how Coco Beach, Florida, ad­dressed spring break con­cerns.

The county and city also agreed to ex­tend the al­co­hol sales cut­off through April 18. Or­di­nances adopted last fall af­ter a public out­cry re­quired al­co­hol sales to stop two hours ear­lier, at 2 a.m., through­out March.

The county, which con­trols roughly 8 miles of shore­line along the Gulf of Mex­ico, also en­acted an or­di­nance re­quir­ing bars and clubs to ad­mit no one younger than 21. The City Coun­cil tabled the is­sue and will con­tinue to al­low clubs and bars to ad­mit peo­ple who are at least 18.

The 2 a.m. cut­off and the al­co­hol ban up­set some res­i­dents and club own­ers, who con­tend the house party shoot­ing is un­re­lated to busi­nesses cater­ing to pa­trons in a con­trolled and se­cure en­vi­ron­ment.

“This has com­pletely spun out of con­trol,” said Club La Vela owner Pa­trick Pf­ef­fer, “and some­how they are try­ing to blame the clubs for a shoot­ing at a house party that was sev­eral miles down the road and did not in­volve any of our pa­trons. This has be­come a moral cru­sade and a witch hunt.”

By March 29, the sher­iff’s of­fice re­ported 928 ar­rests, al­most triple the 328 ar­rests made dur­ing the same time last year.

The num­ber of firearms taken into ev­i­dence quadru­pled from nine last year to 39 this year. Sher­iff McKei­then has long warned lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials about an in­crease in guns, dis­re­spect and a grow­ing seg­ment of vis­i­tors who don’t at­tend any uni­ver­sity but still come to party and are re­spon­si­ble for the most egre­gious and vi­o­lent crimes.

The house party shooter who in­jured seven peo­ple, three crit­i­cally, was a parolee from Mo­bile, Alabama. Three of the vic­tims were col­lege stu­dents at Alabama A&M Uni­ver­sity. A mo­tive is still not known.

Af­ter the house party shoot­ing, Sher­iff McKei­then held a sober­ing press con­fer­ence on the beach.

“At some point, law en­force­ment is go­ing to be put into a con­fronta­tion with some­one with a gun. This will not end well,” Sher­iff McKei­then told re­porters near the por­ta­ble jail. “We will then be sub­jected to an­other to­tally dif­fer­ent is­sue that none of us want or need. I want you to un­der­stand the se­ri­ous­ness of what’s go­ing on here.”

Mean­while, more hor­ror sto­ries emerged. A col­lege stu­dent from Ne­braska was found par­a­lyzed on the beach March 23. The stu­dent, dis­cov­ered alone on the sand, has no rec­ol­lec­tion of his in­jury.

A pedes­trian was struck and killed on Easter. The driver, who fled the scene, was later ar­rested.

Sher­iff McKei­then, who was greeted with a stand­ing ova­tion at the emer­gency County Com­mis­sion meet­ing March 31, said he would like his pro­posed or­di­nances adopted for spring break next year. Such rec­om­men­da­tions in­clude ban­ning al­co­hol on beaches and in park­ing lots, stop­ping al­co­hol sales at 2 a.m., re­quir­ing ID for any­one who has al­co­hol, ag­gres­sively en­forc­ing fire codes to con­trol crowds, and ad­ver­tis­ing all of the new re­stric­tions.

Oth­ers in at­ten­dance of­fered ad­di­tional so­lu­tions such as in­stalling video cam­eras to record un­law­ful be­hav­ior, in­creas­ing check­points, ban­ning scooter rentals, and im­ple­ment­ing greater se­cu­rity mea­sures on pri­vate prop­erty along the beach owned by busi­nesses.

To help sep­a­rate col­lege stu­dents from other rev­el­ers, Mr. McKei­then sug­gested that pa­trons be re­quired to present col­lege ID to en­ter clubs and bars, rent scoot­ers or stay at lo­cal con­do­mini­ums and ho­tels.

Mr. Pf­ef­fer dis­agrees with the idea of re­quir­ing col­lege ID.

“Do you all of a sud­den have to be in col­lege to gain ad­mis­sion to a night­club? There are se­ri­ous con­sti­tu­tional im­pli­ca­tions here, and an or­di­nance like that wouldn’t pass the smell test,” said Mr. Pf­ef­fer, who is also a lawyer.

Mr. Pf­ef­fer said he and other club own­ers will start a cam­paign to ed­u­cate the public about spring break. He and other club own­ers agree that the great­est chal­lenges stem from rau­cous partiers who are not col­lege stu­dents. Also, Mr. Pf­ef­fer con­tends that re­quir­ing a 21-and-older ad­mis­sion pol­icy for clubs and bars would cause un­su­per­vised and un­reg­u­lated house par­ties to pro­lif­er­ate.

Cit­i­zens for a New Panama City Beach is pre­pared to pur­sue a re­call elec­tion if the City Coun­cil does not adopt Sher­iff McKei­then’s rec­om­men­da­tions. The group grew from a Face­book page, PCB Own­ers Al­liance.

One of the group’s lead­ers, lawyer Wes Pittman, has aired an­nounce­ments on TV ask­ing con­cerned res­i­dents to con­tact lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials about spring break. Mr. Curry said more changes to spring break will be com­ing, and not ev­ery­one will be pleased.

“This is just a start. We have to stay on this course for a while,” said Mr. Curry. “We are all go­ing to have to give up some­thing for the short term to get this back on track.”


Of­fi­cer James Vestal in­forms a group of spring break­ers about a new al­co­hol ban in Panama City Beach, Florida. The coun­cil ap­proved an emer­gency or­di­nance ban­ning drink­ing on the beach and in park­ing lots through the end of spring break. The bans are in ef­fect through April 18.

Po­lice Chief Drew Whit­man ad­dresses the Panama City Beach City Coun­cil dur­ing an emer­gency meet­ing to dis­cuss the house party shoot­ing that left seven in­jured.

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