May 10, 2021
Miami Beach chief orders probe of cops he says refused overtime during chaotic Spring Break
 
 
By Charles Rabin
 
More than a dozen Miami Beach police officers are being investigated for ignoring orders to work overtime during Spring Break, a two-month bacchanal that left city leaders scrambling to counter negative publicity as officers struggled to control crowds.
 
The investigation by Internal Affairs, opened at the request of Police Chief Richard Clements, accuses officers of improper behavior and absenteeism. Both are potentially fireable offenses. The officers were notified on Wednesday. 
 
"Be advised that you are a subject officer of the above listed Internal Affairs Investigation. This investigation is in reference to Conduct Unbecoming and an Absent without Leave allegation made against you by the office of the chief,” memos written to the officers said.
 
Clements, who took fire for his department’s forceful response to the mostly Black and unexpectedly large Spring Break turnout, acknowledged the investigation on Thursday and said he’d share more specifics when it’s over.
 
“There is an open Internal Affairs investigation regarding a handful of officers who may not have reported for overtime duty during the city’s State of Emergency,” said the chief.  “Accountability is critical as well as the safety of our officers, residents, and visitors.”
 
Miami Beach police were so overwhelmed during some weekends the past two months that they enlisted the help of several neighboring police agencies, Miami-Dade, Miami and Coral Gables among them.
 
Paul Ozaeta, president of the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police was quick to defend his officers and said he’s sure the issue will be resolved without anyone losing a job.
 
“Our officers have been working tirelessly since last year’s Super Bowl. They’ve been there when the city needed them through COVID and through Spring Break,” the union president said. “They’ve never declined to be there when the city needed them and I’m confident that’s the case now. I’m sure at the end it will turn out to be some type of administrative oversight.”
 
What wasn’t immediately clear was if Miami Beach police were under some type of directive that compelled them to work extra hours on short notice during the busy and chaotic seven-week Spring Break period. Both Clements and Ozaeta said they couldn’t respond to that question while the investigation is ongoing.
 
Two law enforcement sources aware of the probe say most of the officers being investigated either didn’t answer their cellphones, were out of town, or said they had plans. They also said some of the officers were told to come to work in as few as two or three hours. Clements and Ozaeta refused comment on that specific issue.
 
Much to the embarrassment of local leaders and to the anger of many local residents, Miami Beach — one of the world’s best-known tourist meccas — has been under an intense international spotlight since the start of Spring Break back in mid February.  Much like Spring Break 2020, despite the ongoing pandemic and attempts to keep them at bay, huge crowds flocked to South Beach’s Entertainment District, stayed at its hotels and ate at its restaurants.
 
But this year, the city’s cancellation of events at or near the beach due to the pandemic and the closing of so many popular nightclubs, forced the mostly young crowd to seek out places to go and things to do. In many cases it left the masses crowding street corners mostly along Ocean Drive, or causing havoc at its outdoor bars and restaurants.
 
Videos of the swollen crowds dancing on cars, partying with abandon and trashing restaurants, even as police in riot gear tried to shoo them away by firing pepper balls, were blasted through social media, were viewed on national news networks and were made fun of on late night variety shows.
 
Even "Saturday Night Live" did an opening skit on the beach scene. At one point the crowds got so rowdy the iconic Clevelander bar on Ocean Drive shut down. One man was charged with inciting a riot after he played music. Well in excess of 1,000 people were arrested and police confiscated about 100 guns. A 34-year-old woman visiting from Pennsylvania was found dead in a hotel room and two men from North Carolina were later arrested and charged with drugging and raping her.
 
Then, almost three weeks ago it reached a breaking point for Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who along with the city manager set an 8 p.m. curfew. The city also blocked traffic from entering the beach on causeways over the weekends.
 
The measures worked. The crowds and the noise have since died down and policing has for the most part gone back to normal. This week the city announced it was lifting the curfew. But Gelber, who is pushing to reorient the city’s Entertainment District away from the drinking and partying scene it has become, asked commissioners to prepare for another tourist wave in just a few weeks.
 
He wants another curfew ahead of Memorial Day Weekend - yet another time when large mostly Black crowds flock to South Beach - and this time he’s willing to use COVID as his reasoning behind it. The mayor said it’s better to prepare for the crowds than react to them.
 
“Rather than hope that it’s just fine,” Gelber said, “it might just be smarter to hedge our bets.”