For thousands of college students, Spring Break 2013 in Panama City Beach means it's party time. But when the partying gets out of hand, it can also mean jail time.
For a few weeks each year, a trip to the slammer doesn't mean a trip across the Hathaway Bridge. Law enforcement officers spend so much time taking suspects to jail that, for the second year in a row, Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen has taken the jail to them. He calls it his "welcome center."
"Ninety-nine percent of these kids are good... we're looking for that one percent that's trying to harm someone or damage someone's property," said Chief Drew Whitman of the Panama City Beach Police Department. "Those are the ones that we want to put in jail."
Putting a suspect behind bars used to mean a round trip of fifty miles or more. The main jail is located off Star Avenue in the northern part of the county.
"We were losing an officer for over an hour sometimes," said Sheriff McKeithen. "Especially during spring break, that's a pretty big gap to be without an officer."
Inside the Mobile Command Center off Thomas Drive, suspects are booked, fingerprinted and photographed – processed the same way it's done at the big house. Two holding pens are located next to the mobile unit. "During this time that we're struggling with manpower and money, we thought it was a good idea," said McKeithen.
In prior years, offenders waited for officers to collect several suspects for a shared ride to the main jail. "It gets the people out of the vans and into the open air area," said McKeithen. "We're able to watch them to see if there's some kind of an issue."
Issues could include alcohol-related symptoms. "We certainly don't want to see someone die of alcohol poisoning... and that was one of the big issues that we're concerned about," said McKeithen.
Chief Whitman said the short drive to the jail means more efficient use of his manpower. "Instead of being gone for two and a half hours, we're only gone for twenty minutes and the officers can get right back to work," he said.
"We've always been told 'build it and they will come'... and they come every year," said McKeithen.
According to the sheriff's office, 20 people were booked into the mobile jail during its first weekend. The jail will remain in operation until April 6.