Fireworks Speech 12-16-02


July 5, 2004 (Draft 2.2 - 7-21-04)

FROM: Dan Simpson
RE: Illegal Fireworks in Azusa

Dear Azusa City Council members:

I trust that each of you will see me as an ally in our fight against the illegal discharge of dangerous explosives in our city streets. I’m not sure how much value five-minute speeches at city council meetings have in making a meaningful difference. So if you have specific recommendations of how I can be involved in partnership with the city in seriously addressing and finding solutions to our fireworks problem, please pass them my way.

With that said, I recognize our city did make an increased effort this year to crack down on illegal fireworks. Martin Quiroz in the city’s PR office provided me copies of the following: Press releases; a memo from Frank Chavez (RE: 4th of July Public Awareness) which outlines specific actions the city is taking; copies of Azusa Tomorrow with the article, "Fireworks Ban in Azusa:" and a quantity of yellow flyers to be distributed.

I commend these efforts. They’re a step in the right direction. I distributed the flyers around my neighborhood the weekend before the 4th (I had just got them a couple days earlier, which was too late, but at least it was something). I ran out of flyers and on Monday got more and spent my evening passing them out (Still not enough -- I could have used several hundred more and a couple more weeks).

Walking the neighborhood and taking to other residents is always an enlightening experience. I found that there are many who are distraught over the pyrotechnic nightmare but who cower in hopelessness, resigned that there’s nothing that can be done. Many Azusa citizens have lost all confidence that our city leadership and police have the will or ability to combat the problem.

During the week before the 4th, I was feeling somewhat encouraged. There seemed to be less illegal fireworks in my neighborhood (every day there were M-80s, bottle rockets, and firecrackers, but the intensity seemed less than years previous).

On Sunday evening, July 4, my family and I were at a wedding reception in Monrovia. When we returned home after 10:00 p.m., I was aghast at what I saw. My neighborhood (bordered by Crescent, San Gabriel, Vernon, and Northside Park) was being rocked by the most horrific discharges of dangerous explosives that I remember in our 14 years of living here. It was absolutely hellish.

There was one party of 40 to 50 people on West Crescent who were discharging a barrage of illegal fireworks in the street, including using large mortar shells. I was distressed to see young children perilously close to these dangerous explosives. I called the policy but I don’t think they ever came.

Over on West 10th, I caught a young man (about 14 years of age) shooting firecrackers and a bottle rocket in the street). His parents and other adults sat on the front lawn, condoning his unlawful behavior. I confronted them directly. They did not have much to say except to offer a feeble attempt to deny their actions. A pile of fireworks sat at their feet. They tried to tell me that they purchased them at a local stand. But I reached over and picked up one of the many packs of firecrackers, catching these people in a lie. I took photographs of them and the evidence and told them I’d be reporting them to the police. They were unsettled.

For my own safety and for my family’s peace of mind, I did not venture out to the other half dozen crime scenes in the blocks around me, which were lighting up the sky with exploding rockets and rocking our homes with powerful explosives.

Quite frankly, I am ashamed and embarrassed of our city. The widespread and blatant lawlessness that pervades many of our neighborhoods is absolutely appalling. As city leaders and citizens, we should be disgusted with ourselves that we have allowed reckless and thoughtless individuals to take our city captive and hold us all hostage to their despicable behavior.

Over the last few years the city has been focusing on curbing gang activity, hate crimes, and drugs. These are worthy efforts and should be pursued with relentless determination. However, we must declare war against the unlawful discharge of dangerous explosives, and put it as a priority along with our other battles. I suspect that many of these children whose parents are modeling to them a reckless disregard for civility, authority, the rights of others, and common decency, are the ones who join the gangs, sell drugs, and practice hate.

So how do we combat this scourge in our beloved Azusa? Here’s some of my recommendations:

1. Create an anti-illegal fireworks taskforce. I had urged this at the council meeting in March 2003 (after Measure M was defeated -- which would have banned all fireworks from Azusa), but to my knowledge, no taskforce has been formed. There is no way to fight a war without a war council. We’ve got to assemble a group of smart, well-connected, and motivated individuals who will take the lead to creatively find and implement solutions. I’d suggest the group be comprised of representatives from city staff (city attorney, manager, PR person), city council, police, fire, school district, business leaders, and community members at large. I would volunteer to be part of such a group.

2. Establish a Zero-Torrance Policy. Declare it from the rooftops and enforce it vigorously.

3. Set a date for the prohibition of all fireworks in Azusa. The fireworks industry spent more then $300,000 in a dirty campaign to defeat Measure M last year. The voters at that time chose to safeguard the profits from the sale of fireworks. However, that doesn’t change the fact that there is no way to effectively eliminate the illegal fireworks as long as the so-called safe and sane variety are still being sold (in spite of the off-base editorial of Steve Scauzillo in the Tribune, July 3, 2004). We need to face that reality and do the right thing for the wellbeing of all Azusans. Give the local fireworks sellers two or three years notice to get ready for the ban, then at the appropriate time, just pass the ordinance (5 to 0 vote). If they file a referendum, vigorously lead the campaign to defeat it at the polls. Or perhaps set a trial period: If the illegal firework problems are sufficiently mitigated over the next three years, the legal ones can stay (as long as the illegal ones are curbed). This will motivate the local fireworks sellers to be part of the solution. The fireworks industry asserted strongly that safe and sane fireworks have nothing to do with the problem of illegal fireworks. Let’s give them a chance to proof it.

4. Strengthen the laws. First, raise the fines and punishment for the discharge of illegal fireworks to the highest possible amount aloud by federal and state law. Make it costly to break the law.

Second, find ways to make the laws more easily enforceable. For example, if someone goes out and shoots their neighbor, the police don’t have to have personally witnessed the crime to be able to enforce the law. A criminal can be charged and convicted based on reasonable evidence. Let’s pursue illegal reforms to make that possible for fireworks violations. We should be able to prosecute these pyrotechnic offenders with solid physical evidence and the testimony of reliable witnesses.

Third, find other laws which can apply to these fireworks criminals. For example, when parents discharge dangerous explosives in the presence of their children, or worse yet, allow their children to light them off, how is that not child endangerment? There are more than a few households in Azusa where DCF should get involved. And is there legal means for citizens file civil suites against these reckless violators who endanger our lives and property?

Forth, add to the fines some kind of required classes. For example, if a minor is cited for illegal fireworks, the minor and parents or guardians would be required to attend 12 hours of Parenting Safety School. Classes would include a whole range of household safety issues. Also require community service hours; apply these hours directly to anti-illegal fireworks activities.

5. Continue to improve our law enforcement practices. This year the Azusa PD greatly increased its legal fireworks enforcement efforts, leading to two arrests and 64 citations (28 misdemeanors and 36 administrative). They also seized three times as much illegal fireworks than last year. Chief Davis and his department are to be commended for a fine effort.

However, there are still areas we need to improve. We must find a better way to dispatch officers to the scene of fireworks crime in a timely enough fashion to actually be relevant. I made three calls to the Azusa PD in the week before this July 4th, and one call on the night of. With every call I made, I gave a specific house address and description of the perpetrator. Unfortunately, I never saw one police car respond, nor did I ever see a single police car in our neighborhood for the entire fireworks season. I would like to examine the official police records to see if indeed an officer responded, how long it took, and if there were any citations or arrests. I recommend a careful analysis of the police responses to give us a clear picture of what’s happening and how we can improve. I know that the PD was swamped with calls for service and that they did their very best to respond with their limited resources. So we as community need to partner with law enforcement and look for creative ways to enhance their effective.

In each call I made this year, the dispatcher mentioned that there was quite a backlog of requests for police, and thus it may take a while. I understand that the policy respond to each illegal firework report in the order in which they come in. If that’s that case, officers spent most of their time getting to the scene hopelessly late. Why not implement a plan where the closest available police officer is dispatched to the scene of the crime the moment a call comes in, regardless if there are 12 requests in waiting? Thus, the police response becomes more of a lottery or triage system. In other words, we can’t respond to all the calls in a timely manner, but we can respond to some lucky ones immediately and get there in time to catch the criminals.

One call I made early in the week was to report the discharge of an M-80. I heard and saw where it came from and saw a young man fleeing the seen. The dispatcher said she would have a patrol car drive by. I asserted to her that just driving by is useless and urged instead that the officers get out of their car and go to the doors of each of the four apartments in the building. They could inform residents that the police are aware of illegal fireworks activities by occupants in this building and remind them of the ban of illegal fireworks. They could also give the opportunity for residents to voluntarily relinquish their illegal fireworks with immunity. Well, the dispatcher simply resounded to me that the police don’t have time for that. This needs to be corrected. Taking a few extra minutes to deal effectively with a known trouble spot is time well spent and should be made a priority. Furthermore, the lady across the street from the apartments told me that residents in that building are constantly shooting off illegal fireworks. When we learn of trouble spots like this, we need to deal with them. Perhaps the police could refer these trouble spots to the fire department and let them use down time to visit these places and give out warnings.

6. Hold neighborhood workshops. Include the citizens in constructive dialog on how to address the problem of illegal fireworks. These gatherings would also be a great way to begin recruiting an army of volunteers.

7. Launch a major public awareness and outreach campaign.
Use the media, city publications, flyers, posters, website, public events, and other available resources to get the word out. Create the Fireworks Taskforce and establish the Zero-Tolerance Policy now, Summer 2004, and make a big announcement worthy of a front-page story in the Tribune. Than all year long, use every opportunity to get the message out. Creatively find low-cost or no-cost forms of publicity. For example, have the Taskforce provide an update at least once a month at city council meetings, taking advantage of the cable telecast. Have Taskforce members or citizen volunteers visit clubs, organizations, scout units, etc. Tap into the local churches to help spread the word. Schools are strategic; get the message to the students in larger doses with more frequency. Make a goal to have a police officer or fire fighter visit every classroom of every AUSD school this coming year, or hold assemblies. Find or create a PowerPoint or video presentation which graphically shows the horrors of fireworks accidents. Find some child with a prosthetic hand and a class eye to share a personal testimony of how fireworks changed his or her life. Publish a police blotter listing those who are cited or charged for fireworks violations. Propose Eagle Scout Service Projects to help the cause.

8. Mobilize an army of citizen volunteers. Door to door outreach is a highly effective means to communicate with the residents and should be the heart of our war again illegal fireworks. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of Azusa citizens who are sick and tired of the fireworks nightmare plaguing our town and who would gladly volunteer time to fight the problem. Use neighborhood captains to lead efforts in each neighborhood to contact every household in Azusa. Issue each volunteer a city name badge, hat, and tee-shirt. Recruit off-duty uniformed police officers and firefighters to volunteer to walk with citizen volunteers in hot-spot neighborhoods prior to the 4th. On the night of the 4th, have citizen volunteers (with their official tee-shirts, hats, and name badges) patrolling two-by two on every block with eyes and ears wide open. They have already met someone from each household on the block, so there is familiarity. At the first sign of a fireworks party setting up, the patrol would greet them, and hand them a flyer reminding them of the zero-tolerance policy. At the first discharge of illegal fireworks, the video camera rolls and captures all the proof necessary to charge and prosecute the offenders. Train the citizen volunteers in observation skills and evidence gathering practices. Equip the patrols with a hotline directly to police dispatching. But most importantly, focus on proactivity and prevention.

9. Bring in police reinforcements. There are other cities within the San Gabriel Valley and southern California which have virtually no problem with illegal fireworks. Arrange for loaner officers from other departments. Use volunteer reservists from other agencies. Mobilize police Explores and ROTC students to help patrol with citizen volunteers. Request California National Guard units.

10. Launch the fireworks season with a huge rally/media event. Set the date for the end of May or early June, 2005. Gather all the neighborhood captains and citizen volunteers at the City Hall Park. Have the fire department give a demonstration on the dangers of fireworks (blow up a watermelon with an M-80, etc.). Charge up the troops and send them out to begin canvassing the neighborhoods. In the weeks prior to the rally day, provide training to citizen volunteers.

12. How do we fund this war on fireworks crime? Start by leveling a 10% fee on the net fireworks sales from the local stands. This would raise $20,000 to 25,000 a year. Have a police or firefighters association fireworks stand with 100% of proceeds going to fight illegal fireworks. Tap into local business and APU. Find some grants. Include the war on fireworks in the city budget.

Anyway, these are some ideas. There’s a lot more out there. I’ll help in any way I can to end the horrific, lawless, discharge of dangerous explosive in our city.

Dan Simpson
Azusa, CA

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