Island braces for Cinco de Mayo after Easter shootings
With less than three weeks to the Cinco de Mayo Mexican holiday on Saturday, May 5, Island and Manatee County officials are scrambling to ensure the safety of beachgoers that day following the gang-related shootings on Easter Sunday - April 8 - at Coquina Beach.
The annual Mexican holiday is expected to bring heavier-than-usual crowds to the Island because it falls this year on a weekend. A normal Cinco de Mayo celebration might bring 10,000 people to Island beaches, local law enforcement officials have said previously, but a weekend date for May 5 and good weather could easily see that number swell to 15,000 or more.
Officials on both sides of Anna Maria Sound say they want to have plans in place by May 5 to assure the public that it's safe to go to Coquina Beach.
County Administrator Ed Hunzecker told Manatee County Commissioners April 10 that he will bring "drastic" proposals to the April 24 commission meeting to try to prevent further outbursts of gunfire, fights and disturbances, all of which have plagued Coquina Beach in the past on major holidays.
County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, a former Holmes Beach mayor and city commissioner, said that any proposal for crowd control and public safety at Coquina Beach must also address the Manatee Public Beach in Holmes Beach and Bayfront Park in Anna Maria.
"There's a bleed-over effect to the other Island cities on these five or six holidays each year," said Whitmore.
"Something should be in place by Cinco de Mayo," she added, noting the commission will only have 10 days before the holiday to implement any plan.
But problems at Coquina Beach, which is a county-operated park, are nothing new to Bradenton Beach and other Island cities, Whitmore said.
"We've had these problems before," she said, including shootings, a beach closing incident, a riot one Easter Sunday in the 1990s, and other gang-related violence on major holidays.
"Many times [Bradenton Beach] Mayor John Chappie and I have gone to the county commission with our problems and the commission hasn't taken them as seriously as we do on the Island. With this recent shooting, however, the commission is 100 percent that we have to do something," she said. "I think the county is now taking heed."
That "something" is going to be "drastic," emphasized Hunzeker, at least to start, and it's going to be expensive.
While he did not indicate what he might bring to the April 24 meeting, he said he would meet with Island elected officials and law enforcement on April 17 before presenting his solution. Proposals could include changing the flow of traffic through the parking lots to eliminate "cruising." At present, motorists can drive the entire length of the Coquina Beach parking lot without interference.
Other "drastic" measures might include paid parking, or free parking for county residents while out-of-county residents have to purchase a parking pass, background checks on people who rent pavilions, law enforcement roadblocks on major holidays at all entrances of the park to check identification and a large police presence on those holidays.
But Manatee County Sheriff's Office deputies and other local law enforcement agencies were at Coquina Beach in force Easter Sunday and the shootings still took place. One man was shot just 40 feet from an MCSO deputy. Police had expected trouble in response to a gang-related shooting in east Manatee in late March and had issued a "gang all-call" alert at Coquina Beach that day.
An estimated 1,000 gang members, many from outside Manatee County, were reportedly among the 10,000 to 15,000 people at Coquina Beach April 8. Two men from Plant City have been arrested in the Coquina Beach shootings, while three brothers, all reportedly from the Arcadia area, were taken to the hospital after being shot.
The continued violence at Coquina Beach prompted Chappie to chastise the county. "Our dirty little secret is, don't come to Manatee county's beaches on holiday weekends. The county needs to wake up," he said.
Whitmore said any "drastic" police measures have to be done carefully to ensure they are legal.
Officials and law enforcement officers from the Island cities along with Sheriff Brad Steube will be at the April 24 county commission meeting, said Whitmore.
"We need everyone's support on this," she said.
Some local tourism industry executives said they would support whatever proposals are adopted as long as those ensure the safety of visitors, Manatee County and Island residents.
One executive, who asked not to be identified, said that the gangs are from outside Manatee County, but bring their violence to the beach.
Cinco de Mayo preparations
Island law enforcement agencies are already preparing for the Cinco de Mayo holiday.
Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford said she will meet with Sgt. John Kenney, the officer in charge of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office substation in Anna Maria, well before the holiday to ensure the "highest coverage" of available MCSO deputies for Anna Maria.
Bayfront Park is usually not a problem on Cinco de Mayo except for parking and open containers of alcohol, Kenney has said previously. The park is normally frequented by families on major holidays.
In Holmes Beach, Police Lt. Dale Stephenson said staff levels will be increased during the day and officers will be patrolling the beach on the ATV. He did note, however, that Cinco de Mayo activity at Manatee Public Beach is generally no greater than any other holiday weekend.
That means Bradenton Beach will likely bear the brunt of Cinco de Mayo visitors, particularly at Coquina Beach.
Because the holiday falls on a weekend, Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale plans to have all reserve officers on duty. He'll also ask the Manatee County Sheriff's Office for more deputies than normal for a holiday weekend.
"Because of what happened Easter, we will be asking the MCSO for more officers," he said.
Speciale will consult with the MCSO prior to the holiday to determine if a "gang all call" should be issued for Coquina Beach for the holiday. That would bring the MCSO and law enforcement officers from throughout the area to Coquina Beach in advance of the expected throng of beachgoers.
At this point, however, Speciale doesn't know if that designation will be in effect May 5, but he plans to meet with the MCSO prior to the holiday to make the determination.
Cinco de Mayo is "not as busy a holiday as Easter, but it will still be busy," Speciale said.
The chief also noted that gang-related activity and violence at Coquina Beach is nothing new and many times in recent years he's expressed his concern about public safety at the beach to the county commission, without apparent success. "I've always said it wasn't a question of ‘if,' but ‘when,'" he noted.
With the recent shootings, however, sentiments apparently have changed on the county commission.
"They haven't really prioritized our concerns with Coquina Beach until now," the chief said.
A history of incidents at Coquina Beach since 1996:
- June 2006 – A planned concert of local rap artists and musicians was canceled after police expressed concern for public safety.
- Easter 2005 – Police arrested several people for various drug offenses. Some of those taken into custody resisted arrest and were forcibly detained.
- Easter 2001 – The Manatee County Sheriff's Office closed the beach and parking lot due to overcrowding after an estimated 30,000 people arrived to soak up the sun and sea.
- March 2000 – The MCSO closed Coquina Beach after a fight erupted over a minor traffic incident. Several hundred people were eventually involved in the fight.
- August 1998 – A drive-by shooting at Coquina Beach sent a 9-year-old boy to the hospital.
- Easter 1996 – Two men started a fight which spread to other groups of people watching the incident. Several people were arrested.