MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Police in Miami Beach kicked off what was expected to be a busy spring break weekend by shooting pepper balls in order to disperse a crowd that had gathered around officers who were making an arrest.
The Miami Beach Police Department tweeted Friday night that two officers were injured and had to be taken to a hospital. They were released early Saturday but remained off-duty because of their injuries, the police department said in an emailed statement.
James Harrison, 19, of Brooklyn, New York, was arrested on charges of battery on a police officer, resisting an officer with violence, inciting a riot and disorderly conduct. Harrison shouted obscenities at police officers when they tried to break up a crowd of more than 200 people that was blocking traffic, smoking cannabis and carrying around open containers, according to a police report released Saturday.
Harrison then pushed an officer and the crowd surrounded officers who were outnumbered at the intersection in the heart of Miami Beach’s famous nightclub and restaurant district, the police report said.
An officer fired pepper balls “due to the large, aggressive, unruly crowd and the immediate posing threats to officer safety,” the police report said. Another officer deployed pepper spray, the report said.
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An officer body-slammed Harrison after the 19-year-old grabbed the front collar of the officer’s police vest collar as the officer was trying to place the suspect in handcuffs, authorities said. The move was an attempt to release Harrison’s grip, the report said.
Once on the ground, Harrison started kicking and bracing his body to avoid being put in handcuffs, and an officer hit Harrison in the chest while another officer kneed him in the shoulder, the report said.
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“It should be noted that defendant Harrison’s actions made the crowd extremely aggressive towards officers, posing a clear threat to their safety, due to the large number of unruly subjects present,” the police report said.
Harrison was taken to jail. It couldn’t be determined through online court records Saturday if Harrison had an attorney.
South Beach resident Kevin Green told the Miami Herald that the confrontation began after a crowd of at least 200 people gathered at an intersection to party.
“People were just having fun in that general area,” Green said. “It looked like people were doing Snapchat videos.”
Green said he then heard the pops of pepper balls being fired. He took cover behind a police vehicle as the crowd scattered.
“I heard a pop,” Green said. “A bunch of people started running.”
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Pandemic or not, it’s spring break in Florida
Florida’s beaches and bars are already seeing the first throngs of college students on break, crowding beaches and bars – and worrying public health experts around the country who see the weeks of partying as a potential cause of another spike in coronavirus cases.
The primary concern, experts say, is that partying is occurring at a crucial moment in the fight against the coronavirus: More vaccines are being administered each day, yet more cases of variants – which are highly transmissible – are being reported. Making matters worse, they say, is that students will be taking their break as more states relax restrictions they had in place, such as mask mandates.
Overall, daily COVID-19 case numbers in Florida have declined significantly from a peak in early January, but highly contagious coronavirus mutations are mushrooming across the state, especially in south Florida, as spring break bears down on the state.
Health officials have discovered more infectious COVID-19 variants in 753 people statewide as of Friday, Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso said Saturday, nearly double the 379 logged as of Feb. 14. The variant count includes 738 of the mutation found in the United Kingdom, 13 of the Brazilian strain and two of the South African variant.
Despite the risk of the virus and contagious variants, travel numbers have had a spring break bump around the U.S.
Passengers packed planes during the Thanksgiving and year-end holiday rushes despite advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid travel and are now doing so in greater numbers for spring break.
The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 1,357,111 passengers on Friday, on top of 1,284,271 on Thursday as travelers headed out.
Friday’s numbers were the highest since the Sunday after New Year’s when 1,327,289 passengers were screened. The totals fell below 90,000 in April 2020 in the early days of the pandemic and didn’t top 1 million again until October.
This story was updated to reflect that a Miami Beach Police Department report states one police officer deployed pepper balls and one officer used pepper spray.
Contributing: Associated Press; Dawn Gilbertson and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY; Chris Persaud, Palm Beach Post
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