News

Tri-city fireworks summit examines enforcement, culture change

East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Palo Alto officials take a serious look at stopping the explosions

Boxes of used fireworks are piled up at the corner of Bell Street and Lincoln Street in East Palo Alto on June 24. Photo by Sue Dremann.

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.

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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.

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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.

Changing a culture

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.

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Tri-city fireworks summit examines enforcement, culture change

East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Palo Alto officials take a serious look at stopping the explosions

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Jun 30, 2020, 11:58 am

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.

Comments

Dave Ross
Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Jun 30, 2020 at 12:31 pm
Dave Ross, Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Jun 30, 2020 at 12:31 pm
Like this comment

We hear score of explosions each night all the way up in Portola Valley. I can only imagine how much worse it must be in East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

This seems to be nationwide problem at the moment, with similar reports across the country. Maybe a concerted effort to go after distributors could raise the street price of these explosives high enough to discourage so much use (I know, this approach has had poor success for drug crimes). That would take region-wide cooperation among law enforcement agencies, who already have severely strained budgets. But the cost of individual communities chasing around looking for people in possession or in the act of setting them off seems inefficient.


katherine
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 30, 2020 at 12:40 pm
katherine, Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 30, 2020 at 12:40 pm
Like this comment

Lots of BIG firework explosions, nightly, in The Willows!


Margo
Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 30, 2020 at 1:02 pm
Margo, Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 30, 2020 at 1:02 pm
Like this comment

I think Reuben Abrica's comments are spot on. Why punish before trying to enlist the community's help. There are many in the areas where the fireworks are set off who know the source. There are also many who know why. What I wonder is where do they get the money? And even more, why do they choose to buy fireworks when there are so many hungry folks in their communities. Clearly we have not done a good job of bringing out the best in people. Where does that happen? In the family, in the churches, in the community organizations, in the schools, in the places where people gather. It's everyone's problem. The police and penalties should be the LAST resort, not the first. Many of our social ills could be solved by first learning the why's.


Steve Taffee
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 30, 2020 at 1:31 pm
Steve Taffee, Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 30, 2020 at 1:31 pm
Like this comment

Yes, engage the community! Find out what is leading people to set off fireworks to begin with and not immediately jump to citations and fines before we try to enlist the assistance of those who - sorry for the pun - get a bang out of setting them off to see what creative, cooperative solutions can be found.


Twentse
Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jun 30, 2020 at 3:07 pm
Twentse, Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jun 30, 2020 at 3:07 pm
4 people like this

Where are these fireworks made? In China? If there, stop importing them.


zisnzat
Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Jun 30, 2020 at 3:40 pm
zisnzat, Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Jun 30, 2020 at 3:40 pm
6 people like this

Some of these comments amaze me. The fireworks punks know they are breaking the law. As for starting brush fires, I'm not sure they have the intellectual capacity to understand that. Why are people saying we should try to understand them? They do it for two reasons: 1. It is a protest against wearing masks, 2. We are becoming a lawless society. Stop the hand wringing! Change the laws! Enforce them!


Anonymous
another community
on Jun 30, 2020 at 6:36 pm
Anonymous, another community
on Jun 30, 2020 at 6:36 pm
7 people like this

I don't know that I would characterize asking for law enforcement to respond to be a first instinct. I think plenty of people have expressed concerns to neighbors on social media asking for fireworks to stop, or at the very least to contain activity to 10:00 pm. All of this has been to no avail for weeks. Police in responding also have discretion, even if they can't make an arrest, they can have a conversation with the individuals and say, if we come back and catch you, you're looking at a serious penalty. Abrica is a bit out of touch. He seems nice, but suggesting that residents approach random people and challenge their lighting of fireworks seems like a recipe for disaster when the offending party decides he wants to take it up a notch. Romero is also a bit out of touch when he says he doesn't want to criminalize this behavior, the reality is it is already criminal behavior, it is already against the law, so what he's saying is, I just don't want to enforce the law to the detriment of everyone else that has to endure the fireworks. That's not how this works, police and prosecutors get to issue warnings or not prosecute, but elected officials are not there to act as law enforcement.

Drones seemed like a decent idea for the gathering of evidence.


Sir Topham Hatt
Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jun 30, 2020 at 11:52 pm
Sir Topham Hatt , Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jun 30, 2020 at 11:52 pm
15 people like this

This debate and hand wringing is comical. Obeying laws has clearly become a matter of personal choice and not something all must do or police will enforce. Why should we get all worked up over firecrackers if other laws are optional?


Oh please
Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 3, 2020 at 12:02 am
Oh please, Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 3, 2020 at 12:02 am
4 people like this

Taylor complains that the cops over police and complains of routine police patrols. Well activate the neighborhood watch or something. It’s a misdemeanor at best. It’s still a ticket.


Lynne Bramlett
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 4, 2020 at 9:10 am
Lynne Bramlett, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 4, 2020 at 9:10 am
Like this comment

The night I heard loud fireworks (while listening to a City of MP Council meeting), they were coming from the Menlo College area. My husband saw the fireworks shoot up from what appeared to be the sports area. The article quotes the MP Police Chief as putting extra patrols in Belle Haven. I think they are needed for all areas with limited foot traffic and someone would have the time to set up the display, light it and then disappear quickly.

To report fireworks, the Police want us calling the 24-hour Dispatch Center at 650-329-2413. They certainly are unnerving. What I heard sounded like a large gun battle.


Menlo Voter.
Menlo Park: other
on Jul 4, 2020 at 10:18 am
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
on Jul 4, 2020 at 10:18 am
Like this comment

Hmmmmm. Fireworks being shot off in the Menlo College area. Could it be people coming clear over from Belle Have? Maybe from Redwood City? Nah, most likely people from Menlo Park or Atherton near by. Just goes to show you stupidity knows no economic status.


Murican made
Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Jul 5, 2020 at 10:07 am
Murican made, Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Jul 5, 2020 at 10:07 am
Like this comment

> Where are these fireworks made? In China? If there, stop importing them.

Most in China, of course. Lots in Ohio, a few in SoCal, most back east.


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