PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida -- The two holding cells at the Bay County Sheriff's Office's mobile booking center in Panama City Beach are simple, rectangular structures with wooden frames, chain-link walls and roofs, and rubber floors with a deliberate slant to clean up after the often highly-intoxicated detainees who wait there for a van to take them to the main Bay County Jail. If not for the L-shaped wooden benches inside, the jail cells would be easy to mistake for dog kennels.
It's the last thing most students imagined when planning to spend their spring break in Panama City Beach, but for 561 people and counting this March, it's become a reality.
The booking center is located on the east end of Panama City Beach, just off of Thomas Drive, the same street as spring break super clubs Spinnaker and Club La Vela. This is the fourth year the BCSO has operated a temporary booking facility during spring break, and the second year at this location.
There's no water view at the facility which is housed in an unfinished townhouse development that fell victim to the housing bubble, and is now owned by Bay County. The center is open from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. during the peak college spring break season, from March 1 through the first week of April.
Bay County Jail Warden Rick Anglin doesn't work for UPS, but cited logistics as a primary benefit of the mobile booking center.
Law enforcement officers from the Bay County Sheriff's Office, Panama City Beach Police Department and Florida Highway Patrol can drop off detainees at the facility and return to their posts quickly, rather than making the full trip across the bridge to Panama City and the main jail.
"It's definitely an asset," said Panama City Beach police chief Drew Whitman. "It allows the officer to only be off the street for 15 to 20 minutes.
"Our main emphasis during spring break is on officer presence," Whitman said. "We'd rather be proactive than reactive, and this helps us maintain that presence."
Whitman and Anglin said that before the mobile booking center was created, a trip to the county jail could easily take an officer off the street for two hours or more.
"Before an officer had to decide 'Well, am I going to leave my post for two hours to transport them across the bridge,'" Anglin said. "Now they can at least get someone off the street in about 15 or 20 minutes.
"Most of these are relatively minor offenses, and most of this is done more for their protection and the protection of the public out there that they'll end up doing something to if we don't get them off the street."
The mobile facility also allows personnel to log into the jail's computer system and complete much of the logging information before the detainee arrives at the main facility. Anglin said that helps prevent a bottleneck at the county jail, which houses a population of approximately 900 inmates year round.
Generally those booked at the mobile outpost don't stay there very long. There are two vans used to shuttle as many as 12 detainees per trip to the main jail. Anglin said that during busy times, the vans run constantly. Deputies at the booking center will load up one van while the other is en route.
Anglin said that approximately one third of those brought to the facility during spring break are not charged with any crime. A Florida statute called the Marchman Act allows law enforcement officers to take into custody anyone who appears intoxicated to the point that they present a danger to themselves or others.
Such cases are noted as "detox" in the booking center logs, and are a main reason that an EMT is on the scene at all times while the booking center is open. Anglin said additional medical services are requested usually once or twice every night.
"The first year we would take them and put them on the vans and hold them there until we had three, four, five people ready to be transported," Anglin said. "A lot of these kids coming in are so intoxicated, some of them are on drugs, there are medical issues going on, so it was a high liability not being able to see them. Not to mention sometimes they would get sick and throw up in the van."
Anglin said that most of those who are facing criminal charges are also highly intoxicated.
"Everyone who comes in here could be the next balcony fall, or the next person who drowns in the Gulf, or the next one who steps out into traffic," he said. "The last thing we want is for something like that to happen.
"That's why we have things set up the way we do, so that even if someone gets highly intoxicated, we have a system in place to get them off the street, get them in a controlled setting for their own protection and get them any medical care they might need."
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