Op-Ed

Miami Beach police put themselves in harm’s way to protect black visitors | Opinion

I take seriously any accusation of racism. As Martin Luther King rightly pointed out, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

As a former long-time federal prosecutor in charge of the civil rights unit in South Florida, I prosecuted excessive-force cases, so I am fully aware that police misconduct happens. But the recent accusations about the Miami Beach Police Department from NAACP Chapter President Ruban Roberts is a reminder of just how easy it is to falsely accuse.

Roberts accuses the city of “police state tactics,” that “target black and brown beach patrons.” He points to the firing of rubber bullets from assault rifles as proof of a pattern of misconduct. Roberts also claims that things are worse this year under a new chief of police.

He is entitled to his opinions but not his facts.

First, our city welcomes all visitors. We value the multicultural nature of our tourism, and Spring Break visitors are overwhelmingly wonderful guests.

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But anyone who has access to the internet understands that not all our guests comport themselves in that manner. Every day and night during Spring Break fights break out. Sometimes melees. Young people with bad intentions, or intoxicated, or high on drugs, openly and brazenly starting fights. Sometimes huge fights. Sometimes fights with weapons.

The notion that we are somehow “targeting” people is ludicrous. Look at the videos that document that these fights are never started by our cops — not one. In every altercation, our police are called to respond and step in to deescalate an often incredibly violent altercation. And in every case that they step in, they are putting themselves in harms way to protect, actually rescue, other guests of our community. Usually, black and brown guests. Often, they are protecting the perpetrators themselves from each other.

Over just nine days of Spring Break alone, our police have been called to respond to 125 disturbances, of which 39 included batteries on people. And a dozen officers have been injured while protecting our guests, including suffering broken noses and fingers, and a fractured hip. Can someone point me to another resort destination where police must endure this on a near hourly basis?

As to the allegation that the new police chief has made things worse, last year we arrested 215 people — in the same time period this year only 77 and nearly half were because of the kind of public fighting you’ve seen on the internet. In other words, statistics support that our department has shown restraint.

Absent from Roberts’ assertions is any criticism of the young people who are comporting themselves in this violent manner. Or any suggestion that this behavior during a pandemic is entirely irresponsible.

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Still, our city has tried to tamp it down. This year, we even went so far as to create a four-block enclosed “activation area” with volleyball and basketball courts, a DJ soundstage and several handwashing stations. Our hope was that it would make the crowd friendlier, safer and easier to police by allowing officers to intervene more swiftly before a full-blown melee developed.

Finally, with regard to Roberts’ claim that the police are deploying “rubber bullets,” that just flat-out didn’t happen.

I respect the role of the NAACP — and believe that it is important that right-thinking people scrutinize the actions of government including of law enforcement. But that is not a license to say anything — especially accusations that so badly miss the mark.

Dan Gelber is the mayor of Miami Beach.

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