Could video evidence bring an end to the annual July 4 ‘war zone’ in Long Beach?

The smoke has barely settled from the Fourth of July holiday and city leaders are already looking to strengthen its existing policies on fireworks and how the city can police their use in the city.

A group of council members headed by 3rd District Councilwoman Suzie Price is aiming to fortify the city’s ability to crack down on illegal fireworks, potentially allowing video and photographic evidence to work against offenders.

Fireworks of any kind are illegal in the city of Long Beach yet every year pops, crackles and screeches can be heard throughout the city in the days preceding the holiday. Currently the city’s policy requires police officers to witness a person lighting a firework in order to issue a citation.

The city takes measures each year to issue public service announcements reminding residents of the dangers, and the fines, associated with fireworks, yet every year city hall is beset by people complaining that their neighborhoods sounded “like a war zone” July 4.

Price’s item, which is being sponsored by three other council members, could allow video and photos captured by residents to factor into citations or prosecutions related to fireworks violations. The item could also look to develop a portal in the city’s GO Long Beach app to report such violations.

“Surveillance video is done all the time for other types of crimes so I think we should be able to do the same for fireworks violation,” Price said.

Price said that while the bar for prosecution would be much higher—beyond a reasonable doubt—video or photo evidence could help officers investigating complaints and possibly allow them to issue citations.

Under current law anyone violating the city’s fireworks ban is subject to a $1,000 fine, sentenced to six months in jail, or both.

The department’s zero-tolerance policy has seemingly had little impact on the will of people to set off   fireworks in Long Beach during and around the Independence Day holiday.

The 24-hour period of July 4 this year yielded over 4,600 calls to the city’s dispatch center which included calls to 911 and the non-emergency line as well as calls for service. In 2017 the dispatch center took about 4,500 such calls.

At one point on the night of July 4 the dispatch center was taking about nine calls per minute during the peak time between 8:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.

The numbers do not include those who tried to contact the department but were unable to get through, a complaint that Price acknowledged, and several people took to social media to vent about fireworks activity.

In total, the department issued 32 fireworks and misdemeanor citations and arrested 26 people on felony and misdemeanor arrests July 4. There were 979 fireworks-related calls from July 1 through July 5 according to a city release.

The department did not want to speculate on how expanding the use of technology could impact its ability to enforce the city’s fireworks ban but said it would support policies that allow it to enforce the law.

Price also wants the city to look into what other cities are doing to combat the issue, citing the cities of San Jose and Seaside as examples in her memo.

Fines for fireworks violations in Seaside can be as high as $2,500 and in San Jose fireworks sales can result in a $50,000 fine plus jail time depending on the quantity. The use of drones (Seaside) and online reporting portals are also tools employed to have the community help law enforcement.

Price says she thinks the idea of using video, and potentially fortifying the GO Long Beach app to allow residents to submit fireworks complaints through that avenue is feasible. Price said it’s the city’s duty to enforce the laws it has and is hopeful that a change to the ordinance can be adopted before next July 4.

“You think about any other crime where someone might think that it’s okay to do it because it’s their right to do it or because they might think that it’s safe,” Price said, using drinking and driving as an example. “When you, as a city, from a policy perspective, have knowledge that a particular activity is dangerous to the safety of the public you have to take action and try not just to regulate but to enforce it.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.