It’s that time of year when Spring Breakers from all over the country come to the Florida Panhandle beaches. But, after hundreds of rowdy Spring Breakers caused problems for area communities and law enforcement in years past, several counties cracked down hard and are not anticipating so much of a crowd this time around.
After the Bay County area received some unfavorable attention in the national spotlight for bad Spring Breaker behavior years ago, there was a big move to increase patrols and crack down on alcohol at the beach.
That was in 2014. Now, three years later, Bay County commissioner Griff Griffitts says Spring Break at Panama City Beach is now practically nonexistent.
“I’m hopeful after this year we’ll quit saying Spring Break because it’s essentially dead,” he said, during a commission meeting last week. “Those years in the past are over, and we need to have the community wrap their head around that. Those days are done.”
Still, Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford is taking precautions and asked Commissioners for up to $140,000 for extra beach patrols—just in case. And, Commissioner Guy Tunnell—a former police chief and Sheriff—says it’s better to be safe, than sorry.
“My experience has been it’s a lot easier to plan ahead than try to catch up mid-stream,” he said. “We’ve seen that happen in the past when the resources were not there for law enforcement to do their job the way they needed to do it. We don’t need some of the problems we’ve had in the past that gave us some national notoriety.”
Other Sheriffs are anticipating lower rowdy crowds, like Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson.
“You know, five years ago, we were looking at close to 1,000 arrests,” he said. “We went to a zero tolerance policy, and the next year, we were down to 700. The year after that we were down to 500 and last year, 300—which we think is excellent. We think that’s manageable. The crowds were much better.”
As part of Walton County’s Zero Tolerance Policy, deputies are no longer holding and releasing Spring Breaker offenders via a satellite Sheriff’s station near the beach.
“What happened is the first year, we used to release them right there,” Adkinson added. “And, we found out they were all waving, posting on Facebook, ‘look at me. This is no big deal. Mommy and Daddy will pay the fine.’ And, we said, ‘well, that’s not really the deterrent we’re looking for.’ So, now, we’re taking them all the way to the county jail. Now, we don’t put them back in the pods with hardened murderers or anything like that. But, what we do, do is we tie them up for hours, so that someone has to come and get them, someone has to go deal with it, and it has a deterrent effect of slowing them down.”
And, Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley says he’s taking a similar approach—especially as it relates to underage drinking.
“Since the Panama City Beach and Bay County issues a couple years ago with the sexual assaults and the fights and the guns and the shootings and underage drinking, Bay County, Walton County, Okaloosa County, Santa Rosa County, we’ve all toughened up and had a zero tolerance approach to underage drinking,” said Ashley.
Ashley says overall, the Sheriffs have one goal in mind.
“We just want people to be safe,” he added. “That’s the key. We are one of the largest tourist attractions in the state of Florida, and we want people to come and enjoy are community. We just want people to do it safely and lawfully.”
Spring Break—which usually occurs during March—is expected to run through mid-April.
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