By Mike Kinney
For the first time in several years, reports of illegal fireworks use in Richmond decreased on New Year’s Eve.
The Richmond Police Department, which had 25 officers on duty during the holiday to help respond to service calls involving fireworks, received 67 calls from police dispatch from 5 p.m. New Year’s Eve to 5 a.m. New Year’s Day, which was a significant drop from the same period last year, according to Lt. Brian Gard.
There were also fewer service calls regarding shootings, including celebratory gunfire, with 23 from 9:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. versus 31 during the same time period last year, Lt. Gard said. No injury shootings were reported.
Illegal fireworks use, particularly around the holidays, has trended upward for several years, and reached an apparent crescendo around the Fourth of July holiday, when police saw an 82 percent increase in fireworks-related calls when compared to the same period in 2019. During a six-hour period from 6 p.m to midnight on July 4, police received 270 calls about illegal fireworks. Some suggested COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that canceled fireworks displays and encouraged people to stay home inspired increased usage of illegal fireworks.
Lt. Gard credits outreach by police and fire for helping to decrease incidents of illegal fireworks and celebratory gunfire Thursday night. The coordinated campaign began in May.
“We sent out postcards into the community, held Zoom meetings with the public and the use of social media as well,” he said. “We partnered with the neighborhood councils and they pulled their resources to help get the word out about the illegal use of fireworks.”
Gard added, “What this outreach means is we are pulling the entire community together. And our taking partnerships with the community can truly make a difference.”
Richmond Police Chief Bisa French has made the issue of illegal fireworks use a priority despite her department’s reduced staff. At any given time RPD has nine beat officers patrolling the city.
Fireworks are dangerous in that they can cause serious injuries and fires.
“In an exceptionally dry year for California, fireworks are more dangerous than ever., Richmond police Lt. Matthew Stonebraker said.
Cities across the U.S. are struggling with illegal fireworks use. Last year, 273 million pounds of pyrotechnics were sold in the country, accumulating roughly $1.4 billion dollars in revenue, according to the American Pyrotechnic Association (APA). This year, the APA has recorded firework sellers seeing “all-time” highs, with sales up to 200 to 300 percent. During the recent Fourth of July, Richmond police confiscated “what would have been the equivalent of a truckload of illegal fireworks,” Chief French said.
Enforcing illegal fireworks is difficult. When officers respond to reports of fireworks, offenders are often no longer around by the time police arrive, the police chief added. Those who do get caught face fines and even jail time.
“Fireworks have also been easily accessible to purchase online, including high-powered versions,” Chief French said.
“The Richmond Police Department along with our federal and state partners in law enforcement in 2021 will be trying to identify how to stop the flow of illegal fireworks in the community and will rely on community members who have information leading to sellers and distributors.”