Alcohol crackdown on North Beach before fireworks

Violence broke out on North Beach before 2016 Independence Day fireworks

South Haven, beach
Security checks a cooler for alcohol at the beach in South Haven on July 3, 2017, hours before the Independence Day fireworks.


SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — As tens of thousands of people headed to the lakeshore in South Haven before the annual Fourth of July fireworks on Monday, authorities tightened security with the goal of preventing a wild scene like the one last year that forced them to clear North Beach.

The perimeter of North Beach was blocked off by double fencing. More signs told people that alcohol was not allowed and crews at four security checkpoints searched coolers for booze all day.

South Haven, beach
Security checks a cooler for alcohol at the beach in South Haven on July 3, 2017, hours before the Independence Day fireworks.

The measures worked: On Monday afternoon, families relaxed on the sand, played volleyball and splashed in Lake Michigan.

The enhanced security measures come after violence broke out before the fireworks in 2016.

“It was hectic. It was kind of chaotic,” South Haven resident Alec Washegeise recalled.

“There was fighting … hitting each other, screaming, yelling,” vacationer Valerie Gabuzzi added. “I mean, you were scared.”

Fueled by alcohol, people threw punches and glass bottles, one of which hit an 8-year-old girl.

“A glass booze bottle had struck her in her stomach area, knocked the wind out of her and gave her as asthma attack,” South Haven Police Department Chief Natalie Thompson told 24 Hour News 8 on Monday.

It was watching that girl get carried off the beach in the stretcher that led her to shut down North Beach and arrest dozens of people.

Alcohol wasn’t permitted on the public beach last year, either, but the entrances weren’t staffed as early or as often. Officers patrolling the beach have been generally lenient if they catch someone with alcohol, usually just asking them to dump it out.

South Haven, beach
Signs tell beachgoers that alcohol is not allowed on South Haven’s North Beach on July 3, 2017, hours before the Independence Day fireworks.

Not so this year. Starting at 8 a.m., the checkpoints were manned constantly with help from a private security company. South Haven police asked for help from the Van Buren County Sheriff’s Office and Covert Township Police Department to beef up the police presence on the beach. Officers intended to write tickets if they caught someone with booze and, if necessary, make arrests.

“They checked us — water, our coolers, everything. We feel so secure,” Gabuzzi said.

Local police also worked with the Pokagon Tribal Police to bring in a command center that includes mounted cameras to keep an eye on things.

Police said Wednesday there were only a couple of minor incidents, the most serious of which was one person trying to jump a fence.

For those to thought the measures were overkill or that police were ruining the fun, Chief Thompson had this to say:

“If your idea of fun is coming to South Haven and getting drunk and causing problems and affecting the safety of families and other beachgoers, then we don’t want you in South Haven.”

South Haven’s South Beach is smaller, but also a popular place to watch the fireworks. A command post was also set up there to ensure everyone was staying safe.

The city is normally home to a population of about 4,500, but the chief said that number triples in the summer and can balloon to more than 70,000 during the Fourth of July weekend.