Loud explosions on East Palo Alto's city streets formed a backdrop for a public meeting on Monday night as city council members and chiefs of police and fire departments from Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto met to discuss the growing problem of fireworks.
The virtual meeting, which was convened by the city of East Palo Alto and chaired by Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones, laid out specific steps city leaders hope to take to reduce the number of explosive devices that have been emanating from nightfall until the early morning hours in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park for at least the last two months. Fireworks, except for those designated as "safe and sane," are illegal in the three cities and possession is a misdemeanor.
City leaders planned to take a two-pronged approach: increasing enforcement in the short term and outlining efforts to change the culture behind the use of fireworks in the weeks and months ahead.
The fireworks are largely associated with July 4, and to some extent, New Year's Eve, but this year's massive and persistent explosions have alarmed local leaders. The illegal fireworks have been bigger and more powerful than in years past. The firecrackers and bottle rockets of a few years ago have given way to M-80s, M-1000s and mortars that shower yards and homes with sparks. It's more than a colorful display. The booms are a public health issue, impacting seniors, triggering trauma for veterans, causing lost sleep for many residents and building anxiety in pets.
The fireworks are also destructive. This month, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District has put out six fires, including ones that threatened homes, Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.
Police chiefs from Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto also spoke at the meeting. East Palo Alto police Chief Al Pardini said the large increase is thought to be due to pent-up stress from the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, canceled fireworks shows and the accessibility of large fireworks in nearby states, particularly Nevada. The devices also are more powerful because vendors have shifted to consumers the more powerful fireworks they usually sell for professional shows since the public celebrations have been canceled due to public health concerns.
"We are going to be dealing with airborne devices," Pardini said. Officers are trying to track them and are out on the streets pursuing the offenders. Next week, he plans to release information about the department's current investigations surrounding fireworks use, he said.
Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor said the city has received more than 200 calls regarding fireworks complaints. "It's been hard to sleep at night," she said.
Palo Alto police Chief Bob Jonsen said they have not found anyone in the city in possession of fireworks but they have responded to 28 calls regarding noise complaints about fireworks and 10 calls related to firearms. They found three incidents where bullets were falling to the ground. The complaints have taken place from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. and the fireworks were observed to be coming from East Palo Alto, he said.
Menlo Park and East Palo Alto police will be beefing up staff for the July 4 holiday. Menlo Park police Chief Dave Bertini said he is doubling staffing, with increased patrols in the Belle Haven neighborhood. Pardini is tripling East Palo Alto's staffing.
ShotSpotter, a gunshot-tracking system that the department uses, filters out anything but gunshots, however, it archives other sounds, such as fireworks. The department plans to use the system to identify hot spots, but the technology isn't likely to result in real-time responses by police. Each activation is sent immediately to laptops in patrol cars, which make it too difficult for officers to discern calls that are gunshot-related, he said. ShotSpotter would also likely not pinpoint the exact house where the fireworks are being set off, but rather approximate the sound within about four to six homes, he said. Looking at the archived data, investigators look for common threads such as similar addresses, Pardini said.
Those igniting fireworks frequently run away, making it difficult to catch them by the time officers arrive. By law, police can only arrest or cite someone they have directly witnessed shooting off the fireworks, he said.
This year, some home camera systems showed that people are driving around the city discharging fireworks from their vehicles, according to Pardini.
East Palo Alto City Councilwoman Lisa Gauthier suggested police could gather video from home Ring technology systems to assist with identifying the violators, which Pardini said could help. He is asking the public to review their home-security cameras and share any information with police to help track the location of the fireworks. Officers can collect the fireworks that are left behind and turn them over to the fire district. "We make a citation when we can," he said.
Bertini also said it's difficult to enforce fireworks laws. There's a fine of up to $1,000 on the books and possession is a misdemeanor, he said.
The number of fireworks being moved through the area each year is staggering. A couple of years ago, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection broke up a distribution ring in remote locations such as the Stanislaus National Forest, where big rigs full of fireworks were brought in and dispersed to distributors, Pardini said.
Faced with such odds, Pardini and others said the only way to create meaningful change is to alter the culture that is at the root of the problem.
Menlo Park City Councilman Ray Mueller asked if the police have ever seen a buyback program for fireworks.
"I confess I actually love fireworks and grew up loving them. In legal areas, I have used them. The issue I see in enforcement is you are asking someone who has made an investment and spent money not to use it," he said. They are stuck putting it in their closet and they lose their investment, which is not an incentive to turn the fireworks over to police.
The police chiefs said they have not seen a buyback program anywhere for fireworks, unlike similar gun-buyback programs. The main impediment is funding, they said.
Menlo Park City Councilwoman Catherine Carlton suggested that rather than fining people for use, the cities should make restrictive fines for people selling fireworks and use the money for the buyback program.
Menlo Park fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman was against a buyback program, however. He said that when the city located 600 pounds of fireworks in a home, the fire district stored them in a metal container for later disposal by the proper authorities. It took two years for the explosives to be moved. In the meantime, the gunpowder was sweating, which posed its own problems, he said.
Instead, he recommended surveillance, such as using cameras on a pole or at strategic locations, similar to what is used in the Santa Cruz Mountains to sweep large areas for fires and fireworks explosions. Although controversial, the agency also has drones that could be used to find offenders, he said.
East Palo Alto City Councilman Ruben Abrica stressed that any culture change would not occur without the input of the community. Historically, East Palo Alto has worked through difficult challenges by working with its community.
"We can't realistically expect the police to do everything. These are times when the whole issue of police and community is presenting challenges," he added.
He suggested bringing in the city's many organizations and activists to help talk to people in neighborhoods and on their blocks and to distribute information to residents.
"Some people have the will, authority and compunction to go and talk to those people directly. Otherwise, we are going to end up being disappointed and pointing the finger at the police and I don't think that's fair," he said.
Other city leaders agreed that building up volunteers through nonprofit organizations and emergency-preparations groups could help disseminate information and deliver a unified message to neighbors who are involved in releasing fireworks. Organizing on a block-by-block basis and creating "quiet block" campaigns would help engage the community in pinpointing the trouble spots. Pardini said such community interventions could help.
The city has successfully used community-policing techniques to reduce criminal behavior in the past by bringing in nonprofit leaders to talk to people suspected of criminal activity.
Wallace-Jones apologized for the fireworks.
"I will not offer any excuse for that except to say I do plead a little forgiveness and goodwill from our neighbors," she said. The city has been dealing with the pandemic and protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police, which until now, have occupied much of officials' and staff's attention.
Turning to the fireworks problem, she said no one has been sitting on their hands. She plans to hold another meeting after July 4 to discuss how strategies they discussed, such as training the block volunteers and adding a surveillance mechanism to support the police, are progressing and how they can be leveraged in the coming weeks or months.