A police chase and firefight on the streets of South Beach Monday morning ended with officers shooting into a car on Collins Avenue and killing the driver, bringing a bloody conclusion to Miami Beach’s annual Memorial Day weekend parties.
By 5:30 a.m., police were investigating two officer-involved shootings. One alleged gunman was dead, four bystanders were wounded — possibly by police gunfire — and three officers were being treated at Mount Sinai Medical Center with injuries that were not life-threatening. None has been named by police.
Club and bar hoppers in town for the massively popular Urban Beach Week scattered and screamed as gunshots followed after the weaving car. Some on the relatively empty stretch of Collins Avenue jumped behind cars or into bushes as shots grew closer and louder.
Hundreds of officers shut down the heart of South Beach.
“This incident really mars us,” said Mayor Matti Herrera Bower.
Police Chief Carlos Noriega said the weekend’s relative peace was shattered just before 4 a.m. when a driver struck an officer with his car near Collins Avenue and 16th Street. Noriega said the officer was not from Miami Beach, but an employee of one of many departments who help police South Beach’s Urban Beach Week crowds, which come for hip-hop shows and private parties and can grow to be several hundred thousand strong.
Noriega said the driver sped off and officers on bicycles had to jump out of the way as the car headed south, running over their bikes, driving on the sidewalk and striking “countless” vehicles for about three blocks. Unconfirmed witness reports say the driver was shooting out of his car as police gave chase, though Noriega said police did not find a gun.
“This is all preliminary information we’re trying to verify,” the chief said, adding that police are investigating some reports that passengers ran from the car before officers opened fire.
A YouTube video filmed from several stories above Collins Avenue shows the car driving south and then skidding to a stop as gunshots grow from distant firecracker-like pops to four echoing booms.
Pedestrians fled, or hid and then took off running, as officers approached the driver’s side of the car in a semi-circle with guns drawn.
About one minute after the car stopped, the video shows, pre-dawn darkness is lit by muzzle flashes and the air peppered with the sounds of rapid gun shots.
No one can be seen leaving the car.
Noriega said the driver was pronounced dead at the scene.
He also said four bystanders were shot during the chase, and said they could have been hit by stray bullets fired by police officers.
“I’m not going to discount that possibility,” he said.
At Jackson Memorial Hospital, a woman who wouldn’t give her name told WSVN-7 that police shot her friend while they were running back to her hotel room.
“The police shot her,” she said. “It was by accident, but they still shot her.”
Another witness, Ashley Hinds, 23, from Nashville, said she was leaving Mansion on Washington Avenue when she heard the shots.
“I tried to go back in, but some lady closed the doors and even though we were knocking she never opened them,” Hinds said. “I was afraid. People were running. It was a scary scene.”
Two Miami Beach officers and a Hialeah officer were also hurt during the chase and shooting.
Noriega could not say how his department’s officers were injured, but Hialeah police spokesman Carl Zogby said the Hialeah officer may have been hit by the fleeing vehicle.
Police set up a perimeter following the shooting, which led to the second incident on Washington Avenue.
Just after 5 a.m., authorities say the driver of a gray Mercedes Benz somehow entered an area police had shut down near 14th Street and sped toward several officers.
Noriega said one officer fired into the car, which then crashed into a police cruiser near the median of the busy street.
No one was hurt, and the driver — whom police did not name — was arrested and jailed. Noriega could not say what charges he faces.
Noriega said police officers acted appropriately in both incidents.
“They were both extremely volatile and extremely dangerous,” he said. “And our officers responded to what I consider to be situations involving deadly force.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union called for an outside investigation into the shootings.
“An independent and thorough investigation must be conducted, as should happen every time a civilian is shot and killed by the police,” wrote John de Leon, president of the ACLU’s Greater Miami chapter, which often monitors the policing of the heavily black Memorial Day crowds on South Beach. “What is reported as factual early on is often times rebutted by an independent investigation.”
Both Urban Beach Week visitors and Miami Beach police have been criticized since the event first descended on South Beach in 2001.
That year, city officials and police were unaware that several hundred thousand people were heading into town for private events, and crowds grew out of hand with too few police to manage traffic and the huge influx of people.
There was at least one shooting, fights described as “near-riots” and general gridlock on city streets.
Since then, Urban Beach Week has been criticized by some as a dangerous time to be on South Beach. While there have been calm years, there have also been years like 2007, when a drive-by shooting on Lincoln Road killed two men.
Conversely, police have been sometimes called overzealous in their enforcement.
From 2002 on, the city’s entire police force has worked alternating 12-hour shifts throughout the weekend, aided by dozens of officers from outside agencies. In 2006, when police confiscated 73 firearms and arrested more than 1,000 people — mostly locals — the ACLU and NAACP questioned whether officers had engaged in racial profiling.
City officials were hoping going into Monday morning that Urban Beach Week 2011 would end on a positive note. Ocean Drive businesses dealt with a few scares Saturday night, when crowds rushed sidewalk cafes several times, but otherwise police and officials say the weekend was mostly without violence.
And while officials and business owners said Saturday night was one of the most congested nights ever in the event’s 10-year history, the Sunday night crowds were reportedly much lighter.
Still, there were roughly 450 police in South Beach’s entertainment district around 4 a.m., with clubs still open for another hour.
Noriega said there were so many officers from different agencies on South Beach and present during the time of the shootings that he wasn’t yet sure what officers had fired their weapons and what agencies were involved.
For city officials, who spend months preparing for Memorial Day crowds and roughly $1 million cleaning and patrolling the crowds, Monday’s violence was disheartening.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Assistant City Manager Hilda Fernandez, who spearheaded the city’s efforts during the weekend. “We were almost at the finish line.”
Miami Herald reporters Lidia Dinkova, Laura Figueroa, Kathleen McGrory and Andrea Torres contributed to this report.