By Emily Williams
As students throughout the Over the Mountain area look forward to their annual Spring Break vacations this March, coastal police departments are prepping for the annual pilgrimage to the Gulf Coast by enacting stricter policies to combat the spring vacation’s wild and rule-free stigma.
Officers representing police departments along the Gulf Coast have announced that from March 1 through April 18, spring break drinking laws set zero tolerance policies for minors.
Representatives of the Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Panama City Beach departments as well as the Walton County Sheriff’s Office participated in panel discussions with local parents Jan. 30-31. The meetings were organized by the Mountain Brook Police Department and All In Mountain Brook, an organization that works to enhance and protect the lives of the community’s youth.
Each of the represented cities and counties will be doubling efforts against underage alcohol and illegal substance consumption. According to the officers, the minor-in-possession offense is a misdemeanor crime that normally would result in a fine without jail time.
But under the zero tolerance policy, if an officer catches a minor consuming or in possession of alcohol or illegal substances, they will be arrested, representatives of each city and county in attendance said.
In Walton County, holding zones will be set up to accommodate the influx of arrests and buses will take those under arrest to the police station.
Panama City and Walton County representatives noted that availability of drugs and alcohol has been a growing problem on the beaches.
Sgt. Tommy Thillet of Walton County recalled catching a college-age girl on the beach last year who was selling narcotics out of a fanny pack. He said easy access to drugs makes it easier for children to decide to try them, especially if they’ve had a few beers.
“In short, we are taking a zero tolerance policy this year,” Thillet said. “If we see a minor in possession or consuming alcohol, we will be making an arrest.”
He added that, even if a parent were to give their minor a beer while under their supervision on the beach, both the parents and child would be held accountable and charged.
Gulf Shores police added that, on much of the Alabama coast, minors will not be allowed to take backpacks on the beach. If they do and alcohol is found by an officer, they will be charged.
Panama City’s Lt. J.R. Talamantez noted that he handled 15 sexual assault and battery cases last year, which he said is a slow spring break compared to years past.
According to Panama City Beach Police Department Deputy Chief Chad Lindsey and Talamantez, efforts to get control of the intense spike in crime that floods the Gulf Coast during the month of spring break turned a corner in 2015, when officials began enacting the zero tolerance ordinances.
The representatives agreed that, as each jurisdiction adopted stricter laws, the rowdier crowds moved on to the next city over.
Lindsey and Talamantez added that the overall outcome they are hoping for is not to lock up minors, but to keep minors safe from the criminals who systematically appear every spring break.
Panama City Beach representatives also noted that the crowded “superclubs” on the beach, such as Club La Villa and Spinnaker’s, are breeding grounds for predators.
“Don’t let your children go to the superclubs,” Talamantez said. “Even if it’s a teen night at the club, just stay at your resort. There is no reason for kids to leave the resort.”
Walton County representatives will be strictly enforcing a rule that requires that no minors under the age of 21 be out without an adult after 8 p.m.
“We want the kids to have a good time, but we want them to behave and be safe,” Thillet said. “Little or nothing good comes from a mixed group of kids from multiple areas hanging out on the beach at night. It becomes a competition to see who can be dumber.”
Though he said the 8 p.m. rule is not a curfew – children can be out and about if they are with their parents or alternative adults – Thillet noted that the rule isn’t just to keep the kids safe from predators, but also to keep the neighborhoods safe. Vandalism has become an issue when children are out at night with not much to keep them occupied but alcohol.
Walton County police officers said cars parked in condo or resort lots also should be locked. Thillet estimated his department had 100 car break-ins a night, 98 percent of which involved unlocked cars.
Mountain Brook Police Chief Ted Cook also reminded vacationers to lock any cars left at home and make sure their houses are secured.
“It’s not like it used to be when I was younger, where people committed crimes in their own neighborhoods,” he said. “We have become an easy target. People will come over here when it’s dark and can hit 30 to 40 cars a night because they aren’t locked.”
Spring Break Schedule
The Homewood, Hoover, Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills School Systems will take their Spring Break March 27-31. The dates coincide with the breaks for Birmingham area schools, Baldwin County, Louisiana schools, Huntingdon College, Faulkner State, the University of Arkansas, the University of Missouri and Tulane University.
For more information on each Gulf Coast county and community’s specific spring break rules, contact the local police departments and neighborhood security offices.