South Haven seeks ways to calm North Beach rowdiness

Fights and arrests led authorities clear beach before Independence Day fireworks

South Haven, North Beach, crowd, rowdy, fights, July 3 2016, Fourth of July fireworks
This still image taken from courtesy video shows the crowd on North Beach in South Haven on July 3, 2016.

SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — For its Independence Day celebration, South Haven turns from a resort town of about 5,000 full-time residents into a destination teeming with as many as 75,000 people. So decision to shut down the main spot where people gather to watch the annual fireworks show was not one the police chief takes lightly.

“Public safety trumps everything and that’s what I’m going to stand by,” South Haven Police Chief Natalie Thompson said Wednesday. “There’s no amount of money that can supersede (safety). We’ve got children and families getting hit by bottles.”

For most of the weekend, South Haven’s Fourth of July gathering was peaceful and fun. But sometime Sunday evening as people awaited the fireworks spectacle, the crowds on the city’s North Beach got ugly. There were fights, bottles were thrown at police and citizens, and Thompson decided that the beach had to be closed and evacuated.

“The staff and the police department made the right call,” City Manager Brian Dissette said Wednesday.

After there was rowdiness at the city beaches over Memorial Day, the police chief decided to implement a “zero tolerance” edict for alcohol. This meant instead of warnings and alcohol being dumped, there would be tickets and arrests. Police also set up fencing to limit access to the beach and there were searches of coolers and bags to look for alcohol. Thompson said she knows that there were people skirting the rules, including people who went out the night before and buried alcohol under the sand so it could be located later and dug up.

Final numbers have not yet been tallied, but about 50 people were arrested. Thompson said all but two of those arrests were for misdemeanors. The two felonies so far include a possession with intent to deliver marijuana and inciting a riot.

The city usually has a police force of 19 full-time officers, but during the time the beach was being evacuated, about 80 officers were brought in from Michigan State Police, surrounding counties and tribal police. Several thousand people were cleared from the beach.

Now the city has to decide what to do next year.

“Let’s talk through all the various options that are on the table including the option for saying no show in 2017,” Dissette said.

But he said no decision is set in stone.

“Talk to us about instead of having a 30-minute show. Does a 15-minute show make any difference?” Dissette wondered. “Does kicking it off at 10 o’clock as opposed to 10:30 make any difference? Does having it on the fourth or the fifth make any difference?”

The police chief wants to see the fireworks continue.

“I don’t thinks it’s really viable right now to say we’re going to cancel it,” Thompson said. “I would like the opportunity to improve.”

Mayor Robert Burr said the calls to cancel next year’s event are “too hasty,” the Associated Press reports.

Lifelong South Haven resident and business owner Jamie Cowell, who runs the Northside Memories store near North Beach, agreed.

“It’s nice to see the families come up,” Cowell said. “We get generations of kids that come in every year and to not see them, it would be kind of sad to not see them experience the Fourth of July, the celebration.”

Officials say they are glad they have a year to make a decision and are looking for input from all corners of the community.

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