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Vero lifeguards seek greater police presence on beaches

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of April 23, 2015)

The Vero Beach Lifeguard Association has managed in recent years to get the basic tools lifeguards need to protect the city’s beachgoers, but they say there are a few things  they still need – priority one being more police protection.

South Beach lifeguard Erik Toomsoo told the City Council last week that lifeguards are increasingly burdened with tasks that might better be handled by police officers.

He said the city’s beaches are very popular with locals and tourists alike, and with the additional volume of beach patrons is coming a “party atmosphere” where drinking alcohol and bringing dogs to the beach is causing problems.

Tending to unruly drunks and untethered dogs distracts lifeguards from scanning the waters for hazards and for swimmers in distress.

Though the Vero Beach Police Department has a significant presence in the beach zone and up and down Ocean Drive, especially during busy times, lifeguards want them actually on the beach on ATVs offering some deterrent to anyone who might tarnish a fun day at the beach for Vero’s retirees or families with young children.

An example this past weekend of the type of clientele lifeguards increasingly deal with in Vero’s beach zone came in an arrest made by Vero Beach police Sunday afternoon.

Police were called to Kilwin’s at 3001 Ocean Drive, just across from Humiston Park, because 29-year-old Joseph Bryant was causing a disturbance by banging on the outside of a vehicle with a female sitting inside.

Officer Jeremiah Willis responded and said he found Bryant, who wearing a black hat matched the description called in, sitting on a bench outside Kilwin’s with towels and a bottle of whiskey. By that time, the female in the car had already left the scene.

“Bryant appeared visibly intoxicated, had bloodshot eyes and a flushed face,” Willis wrote in his report. “I asked Bryant why he was hitting a vehicle and he yelled ‘you have no reason to be here, I'm leaving.’ I told Bryant I am conducting an investigation and then asked Bryant to sit back down on the bench.

“I observed Bryant was exhibiting mood swings and could smell a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from Bryant's breath as he was yelling at me,” Willis said.

The situation escalated, Willis said. “Based on my investigation, I concluded that Bryant was intoxicated, endangered the safety of person(s), resisted an officer with violence, attempted to commit a battery on a law enforcement officer, and was in possession of an open container.”

A witness saw Bryant resisting Willis and called the police, asking them to send backup. Officer Ryan Eggers showed up and the two arrested Bryant.

“As I was attempting to place Bryant in the back of my police unit, he spat at Officer Eggers' face, missing him by a couple of inches. Bryant also attempted to kick me to prevent me from closing the door,” Willis wrote.

Reports on the police radio stated that Bryant was trying to kick out the windows in the back of the patrol car. Bryant was initially charged with an open container violation, disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest with violence, but police said a charge of attempted battery of a law enforcement officer might be added later.

Lifeguards say this kind of thing unfortunately happens more often at the beach than people think.  They asked the City Council to beef up police enforcement of codes prohibiting alcoholic beverages and dogs on the beach.

With the growing popularity of Vero as a beach destination, lifeguards also reiterated the parking issues that the City Council has heard about for the past couple of years from residents and business owners.

“Route 60 ends at Sexton Plaza which brings many people right to our beach. However, parking is a problem. Customers of the oceanside businesses, beach patrons and business employees vie for the limited amount of spaces,” the lifeguards’ memo says.

The lifeguards also asked the Council last week to extend hours that the beaches are protected from 5 to 7 p.m., add lifeguard stands at Conn beach and Sexton Plaza beach, and and create handicap-accessible facilities.

Lifeguards also want Ocean Rescue carved out into its own department, out from under the city’s Recreation operations, and they want a headquarters building for meetings, training and administration at Humiston Park where a structure already exists.

“Having the lifeguard leadership centrally located to respond quickly is of paramount importance. VBLA is committed to proposing, funding and if approved, build a headquarters and tower above the current space being used by lifeguards and the public at Humiston Park,” the lifeguards said.

The City Council did not take action on any of the items on the lifeguards’ list, but the issues are likely to re-emerge when the city takes up its proposed budget for the 2015-16 year during workshops this June and July.