Downey hikes penalty for illegal fireworks

DOWNEY - Dismayed at the number of illegal fireworks exploding over Downey last July 4, the City Council this week approved raising the minimum fine for anyone caught with illicit fireworks to $2,000. Council members also approved a marketing campaign aimed at educating residents of the increased penalties, and are considering spending $8,000 to add 18 police officers to July 4 patrol.

But even those measures may not be enough to curb the use of illegal fireworks here, officials acknowledged, which every year prompt hundreds of complaints and 911 calls.

Police officers issued 43 citations for illegal fireworks last Independence Day, but were overwhelmed by the sheer number of violations.

"Officers busy issuing citations reported that illegal sky rockets were blowing up all around them and they were simply unable to respond," Police Chief Carl Charles wrote in a report to council members. "The large numbers of legal 'safe and sane' fireworks also provided a cover and distraction, making it hard to identify those responsible for setting off the illegal fireworks."

The police department normally has 25 officers on duty July 4, not counting a 10-person "fireworks enforcement team" in unmarked detective cruisers and on bicycles.

Officers, however, are also assigned to staff the fireworks show at Downey High School, taking them away from regular patrol. (The fireworks show is sponsored by Calvary Chapel, which reimburses the city for police overtime costs).

Adding 18 police officers and three sergeants to July 4 overtime duty would cost about $8,000.

In his report, Charles recommended increasing the minimum fine for a first-time fireworks offense to at least $2,000. The stepped-up penalties would be advertised on local billboards and on flyers, possibly financed by increasing permit fees on fireworks stands.

Although council members accepted the recommendations Tuesday, Charles warned they likely won't be enough.

"[We] do not expect this to eradicate the overwhelming majority of illegal firework activity that plagues the city every year," Charles said. "We suspect that only a complete ban on all fireworks would make a significant impact."

Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Vasquez called July 4 a "low point" in his career as a councilman.

"It was pure mayhem on the streets," he lamented. Forty-nine L.A. County cities and unincorporated areas ban all forms of fireworks, including Cerritos, Whittier and Long Beach, which may send some of those residents into Downey on July 4, Councilman Alex Saab said.

Illegal fireworks were blamed for a house fire this year, which temporarily displaced a Downey family.

Downey residents voted in 2002 to keep "safe and sane" fireworks legal in Downey.

********** Published: Oct. 24, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 28

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