Sarasota County Sheriff’s Officer Sgt. Scott Osborne sits on an all-terrain vehicle and surveys the crowd of hundreds gathered at Siesta Key beach on St. Patrick’s Day.
Osborne and fellow deputies Jason Strom and Chris McGregor are permanent island fixtures — veterans with more than 30 years of combined service on Siesta Key.
But, through the end of March, at least four additional full-time deputies will serve the island, using ATVs, horses and bicycles to keep Siesta peaceful during spring break. Cool weather and rain have shrunk the influx of college students who usually flock to Siesta beaches and bars.
“The weather sucks,” said Sun Ride Pedi Cab owner Glen Cappetta, whose firm shuttles people around the island on bicycle rickshaws.
Cappetta estimates ridership is down 30% compared to last year’s numbers during spring break.
Roughly 141,050 people have visited Siesta beach from March 1 through March 19 this year. The number of beachgoers has decreased 45% from 260,100 in the same timeframe last year.
“We’ve had more staff scheduled than needed by far,” said Big Olaf Creamery of Siesta Key Manager Nathan Groff. Colleges in Indiana and Ohio staggered their spring breaks and thinned the volume of those tourists, Groff said.
The weather is a major factor in how thick a crowd will be on Siesta, and the overcast St. Patrick’s Day offered a respite to deputies working on the beach. But, Osborne, Strom and McGregor remained alert.
Just after 2 p.m., an obviously intoxicated man, estimated to be in his 20s, pushed through a group of beachgoers while blasting music from a PA system. The beachgoers shouted for help, and Osborne rumbled on his ATV toward the man.
Osborne calmly asked the man with whom he came to the beach with, and escorted him away from the public. The man’s parents spotted him, and the situation ended.
On the other end of the beach, Strom and McGregor encountered an underage drinker and gave her two options: face a court date or pay a fine.
During spring break, deputies have administrative orders that violators can sign to avoid going to court for underage drinking, possession of false identification, tobacco possession by a minor or littering. That prevents clogged local courts and jails and allows vacationing students to avoid another trip to the county for court, Osborne said.
Osborne declined to give specific numbers of units involved in the spring-break operation, which includes the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. On March 17, two mounted deputies patrolled the public parking lot, where six sheriff’s vehicles were parked, while Osborne, Strom and McGregor canvassed the beach seeking the most common violation: underage drinking.
Deputies nabbed about 20 in the first week of spring break, including a 14-year-old boy.
Siesta has come back as a choice destination for college students on vacation, Osborne said.
“Each of the last three years has been bigger than the last,” Osborne said March 14, while sitting at the Sarasota County Parks and Recreation office next to the pavilion. “I think that’s because of word-of-mouth and the No. 1 beach ranking.”
He also cited the struggling economy, which makes bringing friends to stay with family and Sarasota more attractive than going to Daytona Beach or Panama City.
Osborne thumbed through false identification cards confiscated during the operation. He said they are more sophisticated this year, possibly because they can be purchased on the Internet.
One of the confiscated IDs, which a girl bought for $400, had a working scanner strip.
Deputies must rely more on their interview techniques to catch violators. One such tactic is to ask a suspect the year they graduated.
“They always know the date of birth but never what their graduation (year) would be,” Osborne said.
Deputy Jason Mruczek, in his first year on Siesta, patrolled the bars in the Village during a pub crawl. The mounted patrol was on site for crowd control. Despite the poor weather, the Village was filled with college students.
“The nightlife in the Village has increased dramatically,” Osborne said. “Most of the problems at night move to the Village.”