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South Beach crime the ‘number one issue’ in election. Is it perception or reality?

·8 min read

This November, when South Beach resident Mattia Prian votes in his first-ever election in the city, he will have crime on his mind. Specifically, Prian said he’ll be thinking about how his car tires were slashed twice and his windshield shattered last month in a string of vandalism that has hit his neighbors, too.

Prian, who lives in South Beach’s party-fueled entertainment district, said he believes crime has steadily risen in the neighborhood since he moved into his condo at Ocean Drive and 15th Street in 2019.

“It’s getting worse and worse, obviously,” he said, looking out at his car from his window.

Crime is the theme of the city’s Nov. 2 election, during which voters will choose whether to reelect a two-term mayor determined to break the city’s world-famous party scene, select two new commissioners and vote on a non-binding ballot question that asks whether bars should be forced to close three hours earlier, at 2 a.m.

Following an unruly spring break and the murders of two tourists — including one at an Ocean Drive sidewalk cafe — some candidates and incumbents are calling for stricter laws, stricter enforcement and a blanket of police at night in South Beach. The city, meanwhile, is employing the kind of “broken window” strategy of cracking down on minor crimes that swept New York City in the early 1990s and led to a reduction in crime but also complaints of racial profiling.

But Prian is both right and wrong when it comes to crime in Miami Beach. Between 2015 and 2019, a year before COVID-19 closures interrupted tourism and commerce on the million-dollar sandbar, violent crime went down nearly 14.6% citywide, according to data Miami Beach Police reported to the FBI. Violent crime trended down even further last year, decreasing 33% compared to the city’s decade-high totals in 2015.

People cross Collins Avenue after curfew in Miami Beach, Florida, on Saturday, March 27, 2021.
People cross Collins Avenue after curfew in Miami Beach, Florida, on Saturday, March 27, 2021.

More recently, however, violent crime in the city is on the rise. Setting aside the relatively low violent crime totals of 2020, which crime experts view as pandemic-driven outliers, violent crime increased 13% during the first six months of 2021 compared to that same period in 2019, according to police data provided to the Miami Herald.

During that same period this year, the South Beach party hub saw a 35% increase in violent crime. The district accounted for about 20% of the violent crimes and property crimes in the city in 2019, and 32% of all arrests that year, according to police data.

“I think that our concerns are valid even if the actual crime rate has flat-lined or has been going down in some categories,” Mayor Dan Gelber, told the Miami Herald in a recent interview. “It doesn’t change that it doesn’t feel safe.”

Whether perception, reality, or somewhere in between, campaign trail chatter and political ads have at times evoked the steady stream of social media videos highlighting clashes between crowds and cops and the unsettling crimes that have made headlines all year. Some candidates have said it’s not only the frequency of crime, but the types of crime — brawls, shootings, drivers doing donuts — that alarm residents.

“The statistics will not do justice to the sense of disorder it creates,” Gelber said.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber

Voters have received fliers depicting the city’s skyline in a gun’s crosshairs and dramatizing a fictional 911 call in which the victim of a home break-in is left to fend for herself due to a higher demand for officers in South Beach. The candidates behind the ads, the now-disqualified Fabian Basabe and Group 3 commission hopeful Melissa Beattie, also proposed using drones to police the entertainment district and conducting random traffic stops, respectively.

Gelber, who supports the 2 a.m. alcohol rollback, initially proposed the restrictions for just the South Beach entertainment district and got the City Commission to approve it. A Miami-Dade Circuit judge struck it down over a flawed voting process.

Not all candidates support the 2 a.m. ballot question, which envisions certain exemptions the commission could iron out. Some, like Group 3 candidate Stephen Cohen, argue that reducing alcohol sales won’t stem the “recent surge in crime across Miami Beach.” He, instead, proposed increasing the number of cops working in the city and assigning more officers and civilian staff to the entertainment district.

“I want to make it so residents can leave their homes and feel safe,” Cohen told the Herald’s Editorial Board in a recent candidate interview.

Raquel Pacheco, a Group 1 candidate, said the conflicting crime data could be used for “political gain” but that it was the commission’s job to make residents feel safe regardless of crime trends.

“Statistically the numbers don’t add up. Citywide crime has not gone up. It has at times gone down. However, the perception is that we are in a dangerous place. And people don’t feel safe,” she told the Editorial Board. “With that being said, we have to address it. And to me its primarily in the entertainment district.”

Gelber’s proposal has faced push-back from Ocean Drive businesses and a political committee, Citizens for a Safe Miami Beach, which relaunched after a previous iteration disbanded following the defeat of the 2017 referendum to enact a 2 a.m. last call on Ocean Drive.

People stand on a car and fill the streets of a residential South Beach neighborhood during spring break in Miami Beach, Florida, on Sunday, March 21, 2021.
People stand on a car and fill the streets of a residential South Beach neighborhood during spring break in Miami Beach, Florida, on Sunday, March 21, 2021.

“A late night alcohol ban isn’t a real solution to reduce crime,” one recent flier from the committee reads. “We all want safer streets with more police and less crime.”

The committee was restarted by Ceci Velasco, executive director of the Ocean Drive Association, who last week transferred her title as chairperson to a Tallahassee-based attorney.

David Wallack, the owner of Mango’s Tropical Cafe, has also lobbied against an earlier last call. In a Sept. 23 letter to Gelber and the rest of the commission, Wallack said a “social media phenomenon of African American young people” — along with what he called city policy failures and other factors, like COVID-19 and short-term rentals — brought about Ocean Drive’s apparent collapse “into crime and chaotic street party havoc.”

Wallack said the city should ask its officers to enforce existing laws rather than blame late-night operators.

“It is both illogical and inconceivable to blame these few businesses for all the major social media fueled phenomenon woes of Ocean Drive and all South Beach,” he said.

Alex Piquero, a University of Miami criminologist and chairman of the sociology department, said the increase in violent crime in South Beach’s entertainment district is a “cause for concern” and clearly shows that Miami Beach’s crime problem is localized to its night-life capital along Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and Washington Avenue between Fifth and 15th streets.

Piquero said cutting back on alcohol sales is one approach that could help, along with changing the city’s branding.

People stand on a car during spring break while a speaker blasts music an hour past curfew in Miami Beach on Sunday, March 21, 2021. As police closed down Ocean Drive, droves of people moved west toward Alton Road before a few arrests broke up the crowd.
People stand on a car during spring break while a speaker blasts music an hour past curfew in Miami Beach on Sunday, March 21, 2021. As police closed down Ocean Drive, droves of people moved west toward Alton Road before a few arrests broke up the crowd.

But, he said, capitalizing on resident fears with sensationalist campaign ads or proposing to enact a heavy-handed policing strategy will not fix the problem and may lead to a targeting of minorities.

“You can get votes that way but that’s not a constructive policy response,” he said. “It’s gonna do more harm than good.”

Daniel Hertzberg, a Mid Beach resident, said he noticed friends and neighbors who were previously not tuned in to local politics begin to engage more after seeing national news coverage of the raucous spring break in South Beach in March. He said he would support the 2 a.m. referendum and hopes whoever wins the election will focus on improving the crime issue so locals feel comfortable returning to South Beach’s entertainment district.

He said the crime totals may not be as high as in other parts of the country, but for Beach residents it’s “shocking” to see violent crime become more expected. He said he hoped recent actions taken by the administration, like reassigning 40 police officers to South Beach and keeping Miami-Dade officers for the rest of the year, can lead to more permanent solutions.

“I think it’s the number one issue by far,” he said.

Miami Police Chief Richard Clements said what justifies the increase in law and code enforcement resources now deployed in South Beach is the type of crimes that are being committed in the district and how that can affect tourism and upset locals.

“Random acts always put people on edge,” Clements said, referring to the chilling daytime shooting of Dustin Wakefield, who was having an early dinner at an Ocean Drive diner and protecting his infant child when he was killed. “We’re a tourist-based location. Tourists have to feel safe and we want to reassure residents.”

Clements went on to say that perception is a big part of the increased police presence. High-profile crimes like Wakefield’s death and the rape and overdose death of 24-year-old Pennsylvania tourist Christine Englehardt over spring break at an Ocean Drive hotel tend to be more common in the entertainment district.

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