As March draws near, law enforcement is gearing up for the annual celebration that at one time enticed thousands of raucous, college-aged partiers to the white shores of Panama City Beach. This year will be the second in which laws, including a "zero tolerance" alcohol ban on the beach, will be in effect during the entire month of March.
By Zack McDonald | 747-5071 | @PCNHzack | email@example.com
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Despite what appear to be "fake news" articles making the rounds on social media, Spring Break laws restricting alcohol on the sandy beach are still in place — and officers are ready to enforce them.
As March draws near, law enforcement is gearing up for the annual celebration that at one time enticed thousands of raucous, college-aged partiers to the white shores of Panama City Beach. This year will be the second in which laws, including a "zero tolerance" alcohol ban on the beach, will be in effect during the entire month of March. While businesses are expecting an even lower turnout than last year's, authorities are preparing as they have in years past — with an option to scale back if expectations ring true.
In the lead-up to this year's Spring Break, though, law enforcement encountered a novel factor that could have an impact on attendance — fake news.
February 11, 2017
February 11, 2017
February 6, 2017
A misleading article had been floating around cyberspace in mid-January, claiming Panama City Beach's alcohol ban on the beach had been lifted. The creator used a News Herald story from April 1 of last year, when the month-long alcohol ban came to an end, to mislead people into thinking the ban itself had been lifted. The Bay County Sheriff's Office and Panama City Beach Police Department battled back, coordinating a social media response of their own to remind people that was not the case.
"I just wanted to get a message out there to educate the kids and anybody else thinking the alcohol ban had been lifted," PCBPD Chief Drew Whitman said. "If they want to come over and abide by the rules, they're more than welcome. To me there would be nothing worse than getting bamboozled with fake news and then getting arrested. "
Whitman said he has officers prepared to patrol the beaches at the same volume as last year and enforce all the city's Spring Break laws with zero tolerance. PCBPD also has contacted surrounding law enforcement agencies, who have in the past lent assistance during high-traffic times. Whitman added that the amount of officers could be scaled back, depending on how the turnout unfolds through March and April.
"We are planning on having plenty of officers out," he said. "If we can cut back, we will, but we're planning for a regular Spring Break."
BCSO's jurisdiction overlaps that of PCBPD just east of an area known as "the triangle," near the super clubs, which remain a hot spot for visitors. So officials within BCSO likewise have been preparing for the influx of visitors and will be closely monitoring traffic with an option to scale back patrol.
While this is not the first Spring Break of his career, it will be the first in which Sheriff Tommy Ford has been at helm of BCSO. He said this year will be particularly important to show there will be no tolerance for violators. Officers are always left to their own discretion in determining whether to take someone to jail or not, Ford said, but offenders "would have to come to Spring Break from a cave" to get a pass this year from BCSO.
"We are not going to do anything to jeopardize the progress we have made," he said. "We are in a transition period and don't know what to expect. It's more manageable, but to say it's gone away is not accurate."
Ford cited transgressions in other cities last year, saying some softened on enforcement of their alcohol bans. The scenes were similar to that of Spring Break 2015 in Panama City Beach, when an incapacitated woman was sexually assaulted on the beach in broad daylight and seven people were victims of a mass shooting at a house party. Miami had a quick about-face after chaos in South Beach culminated with the deadly shooting of a 20-year-old. Daytona Beach police saw arrests skyrocket and an officer was injured before they had to call in reinforcements from a neighboring county.
"It could turn on a dime if we're not vigilant," Ford said. "We want people to come, but we want them to obey and respect our laws."
Ford said the default for his officers will be the same — arrest for violators in order to send a strong message. Likewise, BCSO will be operating at heightened staff levels with backup on standby. Similar to last year, the mobile booking unit also will be running at the outset, Ford said.
Both agencies said they don't want to deter college students to come to Panama City Beach — they just want them to behave. PCBPD summarized their expectations with one sentence in the response to the fake news story.
"A general rule of thumb we like to use, if it's illegal where you're from, it's illegal here.