“With these smaller crowds, it is easier to manage. We still have that criminal element coming down to take advantage of the situation. But it’s not near what it used to be.”
ZACK McDONALD News Herald Reporter @PCNHzack
PANAMA CITY — There is still a rhythm to Spring Break.
Sparse crowds pepper the white sands of Panama City Beach during the day while police trucks and ATVs roam the landscape enforcing Spring Break laws, including the alcohol ban. As the sun sets, many of the college-aged visitors shuffle off the sand to prepare for whatever the nightlife has to offer. Likewise, law enforcement shifts its resources from beach patrol to what they refer to as the “hard top” for night patrols.
While the crowd sizes are much smaller than Spring Breaks of the pre-alcohol ban era, the types of calls officers respond to after the sun has gone down are much different as well, said Bay County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Chad King.
“It’s night and day,” he said. “We stay busy. But in the past few years [before the Spring Break laws], with the guns, it was getting out of hand.”
As King drove along the beach midnight Friday, he had his flashlight pointed out the window illuminating the white dunes in search of a missing college student. His friends reported that the man had taken LSD, had a bad reaction, escaped out the back door of their Gulf-side rental and run somewhere into the darkness on the beach. Just before calling in air support to scan the beach with infrared technology, the college student staggered back up to the house and was taken to a hospital for treatment.
King, who has worked the Beach during Spring Break since 1999, said so far most of the calls officers have been responding to at night this year have not been related to the annual migration of college students. A majority have been local disturbances or traffic issues, he said.
In the past, those local calls still would have demanded resources, but officers would have had the massive volume of raucous partiers contesting for attention. Many more officers were at the disposal of authorities then, but the combination of massive crowds with the increasing presence of guns in the years leading up to the Spring Break laws meant more opportunities for something to go bad, King said.
“With these smaller crowds, it is easier to manage,” he said. “We still have that criminal element coming down to take advantage of the situation. But it’s not near what it used to be. We’re definitely happy about that.”
King said many violent crimes, like strong-arm robberies or rapes, have dropped off significantly. A few years before the implementation of the laws, he investigated a case in which a girl was sexually assaulted inside a port-a-potty in the area of the Beach infamously known as “The Triangle,” near the super clubs. It took place while thousands of people walked the sidewalks surrounding the incident.
“Years ago, it was frequent — almost daily,” King said, noting that many sexual assaults were shared across social media platforms. “It was publicized and even glorified. And that was one of the last straws.”
In the last year of unfettered alcohol drinking on the beach, BCSO publicized a case in which an inebriated female was sexually assaulted on the crowded beach by three males in broad daylight. Later that same year, an Alabama man opened fire in a crowded house party and fired at seven college students, which led to an emergency ban of alcohol on the beach and the later ordinances.
In the past few years, gunplay has remained an occurrence on Panama City Beach in March, with some of those being unrelated to Spring Break.
As Friday night came to a close with the mandatory shutdown of the clubs at 2 a.m., King was one of a couple officers watching the traffic from a parking lot that in years past would have been filled with patrol cars with their emergency lights on. The sparse crowds dispersed with little issue.
King said officers remain aware of the criminal element and are still coming across firearms during traffic stops or other calls. He cited those as main reason the Spring Break laws, while achieving their goals, are still a necessity.
“Some might suggest we scale it back because it’s working,” King added. “As soon as you do that, that’s when it all hits the fan.”