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Date of Issue: April 26, 2007

Beach safety discussed: Many thoughts, solutions...?

The general problem: Coquina Beach has, upon occasions and especially on holidays, large numbers of potentially unruly crowds of what law enforcement officers describe as gang members.

The specific problem: On Easter Sunday, three Arcadia men were shot at about 4:30 p.m., despite a significant police presence. Two suspects were arrested at the scene and face charges in the shootings.

The solutions: myriad.

A group of county and municipal officials met April 17 to discuss the problems and seek solutions to what Bradenton Beach officials have said is a long-standing issue.

The Preserve Our Beautiful Beaches Task Force meeting at Bradenton Beach City Hall drew Manatee County officials from a number of departments, as well as officials from Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, Longboat Key and Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube.

Findings from the task force will be presented to the Manatee County Commission April 24 at 2:30 p.m., at the county building in downtown Bradenton. The commission will have the final say on what plan of action will be taken.

The basic consensus of the group seemed to focus on a plan designed by Mike Sosadeeter, with the county's parks and recreation department.

He configured a new parking plan for the popular south-Island park last year, which received the blessing of the city's scenic highway committee and local law enforcement.

The plan calls for five "pods" and limited ingress-egress to the park. No longer would north-south "cruising" be allowed through the proposed rope-and-bollard lined system of shell roads, but instead motorists would enter from the east and park in separated areas.

The plan would also allow for gates in each area, and when cars filled the pods, gates would block out the areas and separate the regions from vehicular travel. Parking would also be turned 90 degrees - from the current lineup of north-south lanes to east-west lanes - to allow better patrolling of the areas, Sosadeeter said.

There would be no change in the current 1,300 estimated parking spaces at the county-run park.

"I think the plan is good," Bradenton Beach Chief Sam Speciale said at the meeting. "We had 2,000 to 3,000 gang members or club members there, and they were spread out all along the beach on Easter, and we had to spread out the law enforcement efforts. If we've got gates separating the beaches into sections, so we can have families at one end, and then have the gangs stuck into one area, it lets us keep an eye on those guys."

Cindy Turner, head of the county's parks and recreation department, said the beach reconfiguration plan would cost about $750,000.

Parks and recreation project manager Tom Yarger said the south end of the beach redesign could be accomplished in a few months, with the whole beach re-do completed in eight months, pending state permits approval - and county funding.

The consensus of the task force was that the new redesign would significantly restrict unruly activities at the beach.

Law enforcement comments

There were upwards of 40 law enforcement personnel from Bradenton Beach and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office on the beach on Easter in anticipation of something happening, based on sources of gang-related information. Despite a heightened law enforcement presence, the shootings occurred - in fact, the shootings took place yards from uniformed officers.

"If they decide to shoot someone," Speciale said, "they will shoot someone."

Steube said that deputies provide a "show of force" on holidays on their way to the beach. The tactical unit and mounted police travel in a convoy to the beach, as well as having the sheriff's gang units present with video cameras to tape activities.

"I don't know what the solution to the problem is," he said. "As ready as we thought we were, it happened."

Steube suggested that the rental of the pavilions on the beach be vetted through law enforcement officials to determine if anyone having criminal backgrounds was attempting to rent the structures. "It's a way to limit people," he said.

Speciale also said that law enforcement previously initiated a "beer patrol" on the beach early in the day on holidays, confiscating alcohol - prohibited on Manatee County beaches - as a form of control of unruly activity. That practice was halted due to concerns of "profiling" people.

"We used to look in the coolers, but were told no, it's an illegal search and seizure," Speciale said. "If we could look in the coolers, and if we had signs that said that we could, we'd like to do so, because they also have their guns in the coolers. We're not so worried about the fights, as we are of the guns.

"It's terrible to say, but maybe we should think about having signs that say that guns are prohibited on county beaches," he added.

Additional law enforcement personnel on the beach was also broached as a solution.

Currently, Bradenton Beach contracts with the sheriff's office to have two officers and some equipment available at Coquina Beach annually for a fee to the city of about $80,000.

Steube said if deputies took over the patrol, and did so on a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day basis, the cost would be about $670,000 per year for five deputies. "But my suggestion, if Chief Speciale will do it, is for his officers to do it. It makes much more sense. We've got some things to do in the sheriff's office right now, and having five deputies on the beach is not what we want to do. I believe it's better to contract with Bradenton Beach for more people."

However, Steube did say that the upcoming Cinco de Mayo holiday on Saturday, May 5, would produce a large large law enforcement presence at the beach.

"I believe we'll need the same presence on Cinco as Easter," he said, "because that is what the community will expect."

 

The 'paid' word

And then there was the discussion of paid parking on the beach, an issue that has been bandied about for decades.

Turner, of the county's parks and recreation department, said she had canvassed Southwest Florida regarding police presence and parking fees.

Parking at Clearwater Beach in Pinellas County is metered, with annual resident parking for unlimited times at $40 per year.

Collier County charges beach fees of $30 per year, she said, but that fee is collected from resident property taxes. Non-residents pay $6 per day.

Sarasota County does not charge for parking at its beaches, but has a heightened law enforcement presence at its shores.

"Sarasota County and Sarasota City would like to have paid parking," she said, "not as a deterrent to crime, but as a way to pay for the law enforcement presence."

"I'll use the 'paid' word," Speciale said. "We need to do a paid park. In Clearwater, it's $15 a day, and crime up there was reduced by 70 percent. We ask these guys why they're here, and they say it's because it's free."

 

Solutions?

Manatee County commissioners were scheduled to address the beach safety issues at their meeting Tuesday, April 24, with a scheduled time on the day's agenda of 2:30 p.m.