Aug. 23--Maria Fernanda Godinez, a 22-year-old from Cocoa, was out for a drink with friends at downtown Orlando's Vixen Bar early Tuesday morning when a stray bullet ended her life.
The death of a woman who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time is rekindling discussions about how safe visitors are when they head downtown.
It puts more pressure on police, and on City Hall, which has struggled with trying to expand downtown leisure options beyond the mix of bars and nightclubs that draw late-night crowds of thousands of mostly 20-somethings. Though crime in the area has dropped about 7 percent in the past year, city officials think the perception that downtown is a dangerous place is keeping older professionals away.
"We're making some progress, but a single incident like this creates a negative image," Commissioner Robert Stuart said. "People react to the fear, not the facts."
It's of particular concern as the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts -- which will cater to an older crowd -- nears its opening day Nov. 6.
Arts-center board member Bob Snow has been working with police and city officials on a security plan he thinks will ensure theater and ballet patrons feel safe when they visit the $514 million center.
He's pushing for police patrols mounted on horseback during events at the center, which sits just two blocks south of Vixen Bar. That's where an officer confronting 23-year-old Kody Roach, who police say was armed and drunk, accidentally shot and killed Godinez and injured a fellow officer just before 1 a.m. Tuesday.
"With the escalating homicide and assaults in downtown Orlando, many patrons of DPAC's demographics are very concerned about this threatening situation," Snow wrote in a recent internal letter before the latest incident. "We just cannot allow any mugging on the opening of this magnificent facility, now or in the future."
Tuesday's shootings are the latest in a series of violent crimes that have struck downtown, including the fatal stabbing of a popular DJ at Tier Nightclub two months ago; nonfatal shootings in February, March and June; the rape of a woman in a parking garage; and the stabbing death of a bouncer at The Lodge three years ago.
Last year, Mayor Buddy Dyer's administration proposed a series of ordinances aimed at controlling the bar-and-club crowds. The "Destination Downtown" proposal would have banned those younger than 21 after 10 p.m., required bars to use electronic ID scanners, and more. But it was also included carrots for bar owners, including extending drinking hours until 3 a.m. and increasing the allowable noise level in the core of downtown.
The plan was ultimately shelved. But police continue to try to control bar crowds that can turn unruly when they spill onto the streets at closing time.
Last month, in the wake of Smith's stabbing death, police Chief John Mina met with bar and nightclub owners to ask that they take a more active role in rooting out the small fraction of customers who cause problems. He recommended beefing up security; using metal-detector wands and pat-downs to find weapons; instituting dress codes; checking IDs with electronic scanners; and more.
Unlike some cities, Orlando does not require bouncers at clubs, bars or restaurants to receive formal training.
In Philadelphia, bouncers must undergo 16 hours of training on topics ranging from crowd control to defensive tactics to alcohol management. Bouncers are also taught what their powers, obligations and limitations are under the law.
Bouncers in California are required to undergo similar training, said Robert C. Smith, chief executive officer of San Diego-based Nightclub Security Consultants Inc. Smith, who has trained employees at a few Orlando bars, said untrained bouncers in Florida don't know it is legal to hold a person until police arrive.
"Typically what I see around the country ... the guards and managers are not trained to the proper standard they need to be," he said.
Smith likened bouncers' roles to loss-prevention officers at department stores. Those employees proactively watch for shoplifters, and when they spot them in the act, hold them until police arrive. Bouncers can do the same, he said.
But in Orlando, that often doesn't happen.
"As soon as you misbehave, they push you out the door, and then you're OPD's problem," said Commissioner Jim Gray, who wants to see bar owners take more responsibility for their own security. "We're spending extra taxpayer dollars to provide security downtown, and that's something we need to have a discussion about."
Likewise, Commissioner Tony Ortiz, a former OPD officer, said he supports training bouncers, bartenders and other employees to handle rowdy customers before trouble escalates.
High-profile incidents haven't put a dent in the club crowds. Two nights after Godinez's death, a steady stream of partyers filled downtown establishments -- including Vixen Bar, which was busy with the music blaring.
Rhon Romain, 37, of Davenport comes downtown weekly and thinks the violence is a series of isolated incidents. Even so, he may avoid wearing expensive jewelry and being alone.
"You never know who has a gun," he said. "I will definitely think twice about coming to a club."
Taylor Luzadder, 22, of Maitland went to high school with suspect Kody Roach, whom he called an "idiot" who was "bound to do something stupid." As for security, he feels safe.
"There's a heavy police presence," he said. "I think the reports said the cops were here in two minutes [responding to the trouble call]. What more can you ask for?"
At the same time, city leaders are trying to come up with ways to give those not interested in nightclubs a reason to visit downtown. A mayor-appointed task force, Project DTO, is expected this fall to issue recommendations on the future of downtown, including ways to lure more upscale dining and retail.
An Orlando Sentinel analysis shows more than 60 establishments with alcohol licenses in just six square blocks that make up the core of downtown.
"We've got one offering downtown, and that's bars," Gray said. "We've got to somehow facilitate a better mix of bars, restaurants and retail, especially in light of the performing-arts center opening soon. We need to capture that demographic downtown, and those people aren't going into the bars."
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