Fixing spring break
Panama City seeks solution to alcohol-fueled wave of debauchery, crime
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.