Over 80 percent increase in fireworks-related calls this year, local police say

Over 80 percent increase in fireworks-related calls this year, local police say
Public safety officials from Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito and the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office met for a virtual Regional Fireworks Roundtable on June 24, 2020.

You already know this to be true: the use of fireworks has increased exponentially in West Contra Costa County this year.

In Richmond, police have seen an 82 percent increase in fireworks-related calls when compared to the same period last year, according to Richmond police Interim Chief Bisa French, who participated in a virtual Regional Fireworks Roundtable featuring police and fire officials from her city, San Pablo and El Cerrito. The three cities are partnering in an effort to mitigate the problem, which is not just happening regionally but also across the nation.

“We normally start receiving calls in early June [about illegal use of fireworks],” Chief French said. “This year we started receiving calls as early as April.”

In San Pablo, police are reporting an 81 percent increase in fireworks-related calls, San Pablo police Lt. Shawn Ray said during the roundtable.

The community has been significantly impacted, law enforcement officials say.

“I receive over 100 emails every day regarding fireworks and the harm it is doing to pets and people with PTSD and the elderly,” said Chief French, who lives in the city and says she also hears them often. Fireworks, which are illegal in Contra Costa County, are a potential fire hazard, officials say.

Some people are throwing fireworks from moving vehicles, the police chief added.

French suspects the increase in activity is related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as people are home and idle, and also the lack of sanctioned fireworks shows, which have been cancelled in order to prevent the spread of the virus. As many people are working at home, they’re hearing them more throughout the day and reporting the incidents. Fireworks have also been easily accessible to purchase online, including high-powered versions, the chief added.

The challenge has been enforcement. RPD is understaffed — the department has been cut from 169 to 150 officers, with “only about 135 working cops right now,” French said. “At any given time we have nine beat officers to patrol the entire city,” she said.

Stopping fireworks from flowing into the community has also proven challenging, as has catching people in the act of using them, police say. When officers respond to fireworks-related calls or to Shotspotter gun detection activation that can alert them to fireworks, the perpetrators are often no longer around when they arrive at the scene. Adding to the problem, some in the community don’t want RPD to respond to misdemeanor calls like fireworks, part of the recent “defund police” movement that aims to reduce police interactions with community members, Chief French said.

Local police departments say they haven’t given up on the issue. RPD pulled a unit from its regular assignment to focus on fireworks issues, and it’s also offering rewards for information leading to the confiscation of illegal fireworks. SPPD has two officers focused on fireworks matters.

Police are using Shotspotter data and other information to identify hotspots for fireworks use. Recent fireworks hotspots in Richmond have been at 5th and Chanslor, 20th and Chanslor, Pullman Point Apartments and Hartnett Apartments, Richmond police Capt. Al Walle said.

Local officials are trying to identify how to stop the flow of illegal fireworks in the community, in part by coordinating with regional agencies and also by relying on community members who have information leading to sellers and distributors. Rewards are offered for such busts.

Capt. Walle asked the public not to overwhelm 911 dispatch over fireworks they simply hear, but to call only when the have specific intelligence that could lead to an arrest, such as a description of a suspect. He urged residents to call the non-emergency RPD line in other cases.

Wednesday’s Regional Fireworks Roundtable included participation by El Cerrito police Capt. Robert De La Campa, Richmond Fire Department Chief Adrian Sheppard, Richmond Fire Marshal Eric Govan and Contra Costa Senior Deputy District Attorney Paul Graves. The meeting was organized and moderated by Michelle Milam, City of Richmond Crime Prevention Manager.