Trying to stem the tide of illegal fireworks is an uphill effort

By Joe Vargas

It’s almost the Fourth of July, a great American holiday filled with time with family, friends and hopefully good food. But it’s also a time when normally law-abiding people suddenly feel the rules don’t apply to them.

Despite extensive public awareness campaigns, people still choose to use illegal fireworks. I’m not talking about just the “Safe and Sane” variety. I’m talking about firecrackers, roman candles and aerial mortars.

Last year, most cities sounded like war zones. I’ve included a video taken by a drone of last year’s Fourth of July in Orange County. The aerial fireworks are widespread and non-stop.

“Dangerous fireworks” are illegal, but the lawlessness you see is like a scene from the dystopian movie “The Purge,” in which one day a year all crime is legal.

“Some people who are normally upstanding, law-abiding citizens and do not intentionally break the law feel like it’s the one day they can, specifically when it comes to using fireworks,” said Kurt Wallace, communications manager for the Anaheim Police Department.

Wallace told me the number of regular service calls and 911 calls doubles on the Fourth of July. The dispatch staff is significantly increased to deal with the onslaught of calls. According to Wallace, it’s even busier than New Year’s Eve.

In 2016, there were over 1,500 fireworks-related calls for service on the APD’s regular business line. Officers were dispatched to more than 400 of those calls.

The numbers don’t even include the regular calls for service such as domestic violence, crimes in progress and traffic accidents.

Wallace asked that people be patient. The APD dispatch center tries to prioritize the calls received and get officers there as soon as they can.

In addition to police, Anaheim firefighters and city code enforcement officers also will be out on patrol focusing on public education and identifying the locations where dangerous fireworks are being used, or where safe and sane fireworks are being used outside of the restrictions imposed by the municipal code.

Not everyone will be caught, but some will. For those who are caught and cited, they will have a very expensive fine to pay. In Anaheim, fines can range from $250 to $1,000 for misuse of safe and sane fireworks and from $1, 000 to $3,000 for illegal fireworks.

What makes it worse is watching the kids as their parents are cited. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good example to set for a child: “OK, son, you watch for the cops as we set off these mortars.”

It’s disheartening that in the eyes of the children, the police are now the bad guys, the party poopers or the spoil sports. It’s not fun being labeled the bad guy for just doing your job.

Then there are the callers themselves who call about fireworks driving their pets into a frenzy or just booming through the rafters. When the cops don’t show up in minutes, they begin to wonder just how good the police customer service really is. I’ll apologize for all the officers. There just aren’t enough of them to go around.

If you obey the law, you shouldn’t have any problems. If you chose to risk it and get caught, there aren’t too many people going to feel sorry for you.

Let’s all try and have a fun but safe and legal Fourth of July.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.