JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – A violent clash between revelers outside the Jacksonville Beach bars over the weekend has locals and visitors alike concerned about their safety on the eve of Independence Day.
The brawl, which led to one arrest, marks the latest in a string of violence. It comes as police grapple with several shootings, including the shooting death last month of Leon Bennett as he left the bars.
Tuesday evening, Jacksonville Beach police released mug shots of two men wanted in connection to Bennett's death.
In response to growing concerns from the community, city leaders said they are taking steps to address public safety in the area. But they fear they cannot do it alone, saying they need everyone's help.
Cellphone video of Sunday's brawl, obtained by the I-TEAM, shows a scuffle break out in a crowd along First Street about 1:45 a.m. At one point, a man appears to throw a punch at an officer breaking up the fight before getting tackled by police.
That man, a 29-year-old, was booked on misdemeanor charges of disorderly intoxication and resisting police without violence, according to a copy of his arrest report.
In his report, an officer noted that the man appeared intoxicated and was shoving other people in the crowd. The man said he was trying to break up the fight, did not deliberately hit the other officer.
After this story aired on News4Jax Tuesday, the man contacted us to give his side of the story. He said he had had surgery recently to donate a kidney to his brother and was not drinking Sunday night.
"I was actually trying to de-escalate the situation when the police arrived. I was slammed and arrested when I was the person that was actually hit after a punch was thrown from someone in the crowd," he wrote in an email to News4Jax. "The punch dazed me and that’s why I came up fighting. I was not fighting the officer and was not drinking. Was a breath test done -- a blood-alcohol test? No, neither. I had just arrived 10 minutes before the reported incident. I was dazed from the punch and being slammed on the ground by the officer. I am not the person your story portrays me to be and refuse to be the poster child for the violence."
Shown a clip of the video for the first time Tuesday, Jacksonville Beach Mayor Charlie Latham told the I-TEAM he is proud of how officers handled that chaotic scene.
"It seems like a very measured response by the police," he said.
But while Latham was encouraged by the officers' actions, he acknowledged he's concerned by the some of the recent violence in the same area. For instance, Leon Bennett, 23, was shot dead nearby June 24. Then a man was shot in the back Monday on the beach near the pier.
Visitor Dolores Garcia said the recent incidents are surprising for a city that many people view as a weekend or holiday getaway: "It happens everywhere, I guess, but you just don't see that happen in a nice big tourist town like this, you know?"
The story was the same for Marcello Carr, whose family is in town from Georgia. In light of some of the recent news, he said, they chose to stay indoors Monday night instead of going out.
"We still came, but we're kind of skeptical of the area," said Carr.
The mayor said the city has doubled its police force in downtown Jacksonville Beach over the last six years. He said there are 68 officers currently on patrol, but noted that keeping the peace can be far more challenging when large crowds show up for holidays and weekends.
"Every night, as the bars close down at 2 a.m., you will see police officers on every single corner," said Latham. "And we have issues still with people coming out, maybe over-served, or feeling a little rowdy, and trying to get in a fight."
"We do the best we can to get it under control," he added.
For his part, Latham did not say whether he thinks the nearby bars are responsible for the recent violence. But he said these fights likely would not happen if the people involved weren't drinking ahead of time.
"You saw the video. The person came out and started throwing punches at the police officer," he said. "Do you think he was sober? I don't."
Still, Latham insists the city remains a safe place. In addition to the visible presence of uniform officers, he said, there are undercover officers who work near the bars to keep an eye on things. But he added that police need help from the public.
"You cannot legislate free will and you cannot legislate behavior," said Latham. "We do our best to put the resources in place to keep people as safe as we possibly can."