Miami Beach police say they have stopped enforcing a new law that critics believe has emboldened officers to arrest bystanders using their phones to film police on duty.

The law, which made it a crime to stand within 20 feet of officers with the “intent to impede, provoke or harass” them, was passed in June and cited in a string of controversial arrests following a chase and take-down that led to five officers being charged with using excessive force.

The department announced that it had paused enforcement of the law on Thursday, the same day the Miami Herald reported on an additional incident involving the ordinance in which police pepper sprayed and arrested a woman from New York who had been filming a traffic stop in South Beach in late July. A spokesman said the directive was actually issued late last month, after a series of troubling arrests.

On July 26, Chief Richard Clements “verbally” ordered his deputy chief to suspend the enforcement of the ordinance, according to department spokesman Officer Ernesto Rodriguez.

The temporary stoppage, Rodriguez said, will allow for all Miami Beach officers to receive “additional, in-person training on the nuances of the ordinance.”

The new law and the arrests

The department did not mention the pause on enforcement as the Herald reported on a previously unreported video showing how police pepper sprayed a 27-year-old New York tourist, Mariyah Maple, after she had been peacefully recording a traffic stop in the 600 block of Collins Avenue on July 25.

Maple, who was later charged under the ordinance, can be seen recording as a police sergeant asked her to leave and, before she could respond, whipped his bicycle around like a shield, struck her hand and immediately deployed pepper spray. Sgt. Vincent Stella has been assigned to administrative duty while the department reviews the incident.

Maple’s arrest report says she was part of a group that “stood their ground and refused to move” after Stella used his bicycle to “create a physical barrier,” forcing him to use pepper spray.

The incident marked the third time in recent weeks that video has contradicted Miami Beach police arrests under the ordinance.

Thirteen people have been arrested under the ordinance, according to arrest data provided by police. At least eight of those arrests were of people who’d been using their phones to record officers. All 13 were young Black men or women. Most of them still face a potential criminal trial, including Maple.

The ordinance, which the Miami Beach City Commission unanimously approved on June 23, did not gain widespread visibility until after a series of rough arrests at the Royal Palm hotel in South Beach on July 26.

In a case that drew national attention, two New York men were arrested under the same ordinance as they video recorded police officers at the hotel. Khalid Vaughn, 28, was filming police as they repeatedly beat a handcuffed man accused of fleeing police after striking an officer with a scooter.

Vaughn was then slammed into a concrete pillar, and repeatedly punched and elbowed in the head and rib cage while on the ground. Vaughn’s friend, Sharif Cobb, was also arrested — and punched by an officer — after filming officers as they waited outside the lobby to transport his friend to jail. The charges against both men were dropped by the State Attorney’s Office.

In the aftermath, five Miami Beach police officers wound up charged with misdemeanor battery after prosecutors said they used excessive force in making arrests.

Those three arrests appear to be the last made under the ordinance.

“At the directive of the Police Chief, MBPD temporarily suspended the enforcement of CMB Ordinance 70-8 until all Miami Beach officers receive additional, in-person training on the nuances of the ordinance. As a result, there have been no arrests pursuant to this ordinance since July 26,” Rodriguez wrote in a statement.

Emails obtained by the Miami Herald show the police department — which has drawn criticism for its handling of large, mostly Black crowds that periodically flock to the city for Memorial Day weekend, spring break and other events — pressed to get it into place before crowds arrived for Rolling Loud, the hip-hop festival that draws thousands of fans to South Florida.

Political reaction

Miami Beach Commissioner David Richardson, who co-sponsored the ordinance, was the only commissioner to raise questions during a recent meeting about how the ordinance could potentially impact the right of citizens to film the police in public. He told the Miami Herald Friday that Clements assured him the ordinance would not be used to limit the right to film officers.

“I support the suspension of this ordinance while officers are given additional training in order to effectively and legally apply both the letter and spirit of this new ordinance,” Richardson wrote in a statement. “If additional issues of concern are identified, then the Commission should review this ordinance and make the necessary changes.”

City officials and Miami Beach’s police union insist that the law is not meant to target bystanders video recording cops, and is needed to protect officers from the types of unruly crowds that police and city leaders say caused chaos on South Beach during spring break.

Commissioner Steven Meiner, who sponsored the ordinance, said Friday that he supports the decision to pause any enforcement of the ordinance until officers receive additional training.

“Our police department’s leadership informed me today that the in-person officer training is ongoing and will be completed in the next week or so,” Meiner wrote in a statement.

Mayor Dan Gelber, who voted to approve the ordinance, said Clements now needs to determine if the new law is effectively addressing the problem and how best to train officers to enforce it.

“The ordinance is obviously very similar to a state statute that requires compliance with a lawful police order, but if there’s confusion about how to enforce it they need to train on it properly,” Gelber said. “I think our police chief is trying to make sure that it doesn’t have the unintended consequence of chilling videotaping.”

Miami Beach police have been accused in the past of improperly and aggressively responding to people who record them while on duty. Activists have also long accused Miami Beach police of treating minority groups unfairly.

Gelber said the intent of the law was to give police an extra tool to protect themselves from rowdy crowds in South Beach’s entertainment district. The party atmosphere in the district, he said, contributes to a more dangerous environment for both police and bystanders.

“The entertainment district poses real policing challenges,” he said.

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Martin Vassolo covers the politics and government of Miami Beach for the Miami Herald. He began working for the Herald in January 2018 after attending the University of Florida, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Independent Florida Alligator. Previously, he was a general assignment reporter on the Herald’s metro desk and a political reporting intern.