East Palo Alto police Chief Al Pardini said the fireworks activity, which has been going on for weeks, 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 are selling consumers the fireworks they usually reserve for professional shows, which have been canceled due to public health concerns.
Next week, Pardini said, he plans to release information about the department's current investigations into the illegal fireworks.
As for catching the people who are igniting fireworks, it's difficult, Pardini said. By law, police can only arrest or cite someone they have directly witnessed shooting off the fireworks.
This year, some home camera systems showed that people are driving around the city discharging fireworks from their vehicles, according to Pardini.
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.
ShotSpotter, a gunshot-tracking system that the department uses, does record the sounds of fireworks, but the technology can't be used in real-time by police because it only sends alerts for gunshots. The department plans to use the system's archived data to identify fireworks hot spots in the city, however, Pardini said.
Schapelhouman recommended video 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.
For the July 4 holiday, Pardini said he will triple East Palo Alto's staffing. Menlo Park police Chief Dave Bertini said he is doubling staffing, with increased patrols in the Belle Haven neighborhood.
Aside from enforcement, the fireworks can only be stopped through a culture change, Pardini and others said.
Menlo Park City Councilman Ray Mueller suggested the police offer a buyback program for fireworks.
"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.
The police chiefs said they have not seen a buyback program anywhere for fireworks. The main impediment is funding, they said.
Schapelhouman was against a buyback program. He said that one time 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.
East Palo Alto City Councilman Ruben Abrica suggested bringing in the city's many organizations and activists to help talk to people in neighborhoods about fireworks 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 volunteers from nonprofit organizations and emergency-preparations groups could help disseminate information and deliver a unified message to neighbors who are involved in setting off the explosions. 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.
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, she said.
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.
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