The Panama City Beach Police Department and Bay County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) recently released their numbers on arrests and the demand on officers from March 1 to April 16, the period law enforcement considers the Spring Break season. While the amount of crime on Panama City Beach held steady this Spring Break with last year, officers were notably busier when it came to calls for service, according to the figures released to The News Herald.

 

PANAMA CITY BEACH — After a Spring Break punctuated with almost weekly shootings, law enforcement officials defended rules enacted to tame the raucous nature of the annual celebration.

The Panama City Beach Police Department (PCBPD) and Bay County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) recently released their numbers on arrests and the demand on officers from March 1 to April 16, the period law enforcement considers the Spring Break season. While the amount of crime on Panama City Beach held steady this Spring Break with last year, officers were notably busier when it came to calls for service, according to the figures released to The News Herald.

Many people made public their criticisms that the laws, including the March alcohol ban, were ineffective in deterring criminal elements. Some even argued the laws were counterproductive, attracting the undesirable clientele meant to be deterred, and that the decrease in crimes only reflected a lower turnout. Local law enforcement leaders, however, responded that the crime stats demonstrate the laws have been achieving their goal.

“Our goal was to make it safer and more manageable,” said BCSO Sheriff Tommy Ford. “Not to say there were not problems or residuals of Spring Break past, but if you spoke with the visitors and families that were down here, they felt safer.”

The first spate of gunfire erupted March 14, when a 43-year-old wanted Georgia man was shot and killed by PCBPD in the parking lot of the Y Shopping Center, 17180 Front Beach Road. A fatal shooting followed March 19 in the parking lot of the Shoppes at Edgewater, which allegedly involved local men.

The following two weekends, three shootings involving visitors from Georgia and Alabama occurred — mostly in broad daylight. Two men almost died in separate shootings and more than a dozen people were charged with playing various roles.

PCBPD Chief Drew Whitman said the shootings were indicative of a larger societal problem. He pointed to a decrease in his agency’s violent crime stats to illustrate the point that the laws have, overall, decreased serious offenses.

“It seems like every day you hear about a shooting somewhere,” Whitman said. “They have their problems at home and they bring those problems down here with them.”

 

Drugs, guns down

Overshadowing the crime stats are the “calls for service,” which give a general gauge of the demands for law enforcement. The amount of calls for service did not return to the high-volume, pre-alcohol-ban days, officials reported. Both agencies overseeing Spring Break crowds, however, saw a notable uptick in officer activity.

Ford said the discrepancy in those numbers supports that Spring Break laws are achieving their purpose.

“Those aren’t necessarily drug arrests or firearm incidents,” Ford said. “Calls for service can be everything from medical calls to traffic stops to missing people. The fact that drugs and guns were down indicate it’s a different group of people.”

Drug arrests were cut by more than half — 507 in 2015 compared to 210 in 2017 — and firearms, which took a steep drop last year, were halved from 93 in 2015 to 46 in 2017.

Whitman said the lack of large, unruly crowds on the beach also freed up officers to initiate other cases.

“We were able to be more proactive,” Whitman said. “Instead of 10 to 15 officers being down on the beach breaking up crowds, they’re able to be out there picking up crimes before they happen.”

In total, BCSO and PCBPD responded to 16,931 calls for service during the Spring Break season.

Those numbers had dwindled to 13,274 in 2016 after the laws to tame the annual celebration were adopted in 2015 in the wake of a Spring Break in which officers worked 19,439 calls for service in a six-week span.

BCSO experienced an increase from 4,482 calls for service in 2016 to 5,176 this year. PCBPD saw a much sharper increase, from working 8,792 calls for service to responding to 11,755 calls this year.

And that’s while arrests stayed almost even with the previous year. Officers arrested 1,163 people overall during the Spring Break 2017 season. Last year, that number was 1,222. In the days before the beach alcohol ban, those figures were about double in both agencies — a total of 2,423 arrests.

PCBPD and BCSO already are preparing for next year’s migration of college-aged visitors and the issues they might bring. Whitman recently made a pitch for cameras on the three bridges that access Panama City Beach that would use “hot files” to help determine whether suspects have fled the city after an incident. Ford likewise said there still is work to be done in the spring breaks to come. He pointed out other areas have relaxed their enforcement of drinking bans and seen negative results.

“None of us thought this would transform Spring Break in two years,” Ford said. “We have to stay the course. We’ve made a lot of progress, and the ordinances made an impact. We just have to continue to enforce them.”

Spring Break by the numbers

Figures are provided by the Panama City Beach Police Department and Bay County Sheriff’s Office for the six weeks of Spring Break 2015-2017:

Category; number of incidents in 2015; in 2016; in 2017

• Firearms confiscated;93; 20; 46

• Drug arrests; 507; 256; 210

• PCBPD calls for service; 13,301; 8,792; 11,755

• BCSO calls for service; 6,138; 4,482; 5,176

• Total arrests; 2,423; 1,222; 1,163

• Beach alcohol arrests; N/A*; 262; 176

• PCBPD DUI arrests;19; 32; 43

* Law went into effect in 2016