26 Jun Police Ask for Public Help to Stop Illegal Fireworks
Police and fire officials from Richmond, San Pablo and El Cerrito met virtually to discuss the rise in the use of illegal fireworks.
By Michael J. Fitzgerald
Police and fire officials in West Contra Costa County say they need the public’s assistance to stem an alarming rise in the use of illegal fireworks.
And in Richmond, a reward of up to $200 for helping is available.
Law enforcement officials agree the biggest challenge is catching people in the act of shooting off fireworks. Usually by the time police arrive at the scene of reported fireworks activity, they only find smoking canisters or fireworks debris, Richmond Police Chief Bisa French said. And this year there has been an uptick in the number of people throwing fireworks from moving vehicles. “They are throwing them as they drive around town, terrorizing our community,” French said.
“Very difficult to catch in the act.”
This year, Richmond is offering a reward to people who can tell police where fireworks are and/or are being sold. “We need for the community to call us with some very specific information.”
People can call an anonymous tip line at (510) 307-8177.
French made her comments during a one-hour, public webinar-teleconference Wednesday that included representatives of Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito and the county district attorney’s office.
“We’ve had a significant increase in fireworks compared to years past,” French said. “Every year we normally start receive calls around early June. This year we started receiving calls as early as April.”
In June, Richmond logged an 82% increase in calls compared with June of last year.
The reasons for the jump are unclear and being experienced all across California and the rest of the U.S.
But French said she believes it’s in part because more people are at home because of the county health department’s shelter-in-place order and people being out of work.
“We have more people working from home, so we have more people home during the day and hearing the fireworks. We’re getting a lot more calls. And maybe a lot more calls for the same incident,” French said.
Another reason for the big increase is that fireworks can be purchased online, which makes them easier to obtain.
“I’ve received probably over 100 emails per day regarding fireworks and the harm it’s doing to people and pets and people with PTSD,” she said.
Richmond resident Sheila Place, who lives on 44th Street between Nevin and Macdonald avenues, said the fireworks this year have especially distressed her, her mother and dog. They seem much louder and more powerful than in the past, she said.
“I understand people are celebrating,” Place said. “(But) it’s really distressing for people that are seniors that are already distressed because of the COVID situation and pets.”
Dealing with this year’s fireworks has been more challenging for Richmond Police because fewer patrol officers are on staff. In years past, the department had a “foot and bike team” focused on firework calls. “We went from having 196 officers down to 150,” French said.
The concerns raised by French were echoed by other area police departments.
In San Pablo, a four-officer team has been doing extra patrols trying to confiscate as many fireworks as possible.
“As they were doing this, they were coming across other crimes,” Lt. Shawn Ray said.
In one incident, San Pablo police saw a vehicle drive by with someone inside shooting a weapon into the air.
“They ended up catching the subject. He had two firearms on him,” Ray said. “We had another one where they ending up catching a subject that had an assault rifle and a huge box of fireworks.”
The fire danger posed by the illegal incendiary devices is also a big concern this year, with more plentiful and powerful fireworks coupled with dry conditions.
A week ago, fireworks are believed to have ignited a grass fire near Keller Beach in Point Richmond that spread quickly, threatening homes. The fire came after several nights of fireworks in the area that residents repeatedly reported to police.
The Richmond Fire Department contained the grass fire while nearby residents prepared to evacuate.
“Had this fire spread any closer it’s very likely our house and all the houses in our immediate neighborhood would have burned,” Nina Fry of Point Richmond wrote on the social media site Nextdoor.
The Richmond Fire Department plans to have crews on patrol in the city on the Fourth of July, Richmond Fire Chief Adrian Sheppard said.
But he added that areas such as Carriage Hills, Wildcat Canyon and Point Richmond are difficult for the department to deal with if fires break out.
He suggested that during these weeks of firework activity, people proactively water down their lawns, have hoses and water ready at both the front and back of their homes and even consider throwing water up on their roofs.
“Your neighbor might not be using safe and sane fireworks,” Sheppard said.
Besides the police’s challenge of catching people in the act of shooting off fireworks, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office has a heavy lift to prosecute anyone cited.
“My call to the community would be to be proactive,” Paul Graves of the county DA’s office said.
“Videotape if you can. Document if you can. Share your Ring video or Ring photos with law enforcement so they have tools to identify who these perpetrators are.”
State law says possession of illegal fireworks is a misdemeanor — unless the illegal fireworks collectively amount to more than 100 pounds. At that point, it becomes a felony, Graves said.
“Obviously, we would love to get to the distributors, but a lot of people we see are the families that go to your local fireworks stand, and they buy fireworks and they assume they are legal because they were sold in Contra Costa County at a fireworks’ stand,” he said.
“Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Additional reporting by Denis Perez-Bravo