Drones are too expensive, so Long Beach is turning to PR to stop illegal fireworks

It’s that time of year again when fireworks popping in the night become the scourge of Long Beach residents trying to get some shut-eye.

After spending months exploring what city officials could do to curb illegal firework use in Long Beach—most of which proved too costly—officials have decided to go with an aggressive communications campaign to encourage people to “Celebrate Safely,” according to a March memo from city manager Pat West.

City staff researched what other cities do to curb illegal fireworks, including levying administrative fines on property owners caught condoning the use of illegal fireworks, using drones to surveil the city and creating an online reporting tool for residents.

But in the end, the city chose to forego those options mostly because of their price tag:

The problem with administrative fines, for example, is they require a significant investment of staff time and legal fees for appeals hearings, according to the memo. And drones would cost an estimated $35,000 each day they’re deployed in addition to the $40,000 up-front cost to buy two of them.

Long Beach Police Sgt. Brad Johnson, left, and Long Beach Fire Captain Dobberpuhl, right, hold a press conference about illegal firework on June 21, 2018. Photo Thomas R. Cordova.

With online reporting, the biggest problem comes with legal concerns: Do people making the reports provide enough evidence to prosecute? While video evidence submitted by witnesses is helpful, it has to to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a specific person committed the crime, the memo notes.

To help with that, the city manager’s office is planning on working with the city prosecutor’s office to create a “Citizen’s Complaint Guide” where residents can find out what exactly what they need to report so someone can be ticketed. This part of the recommendation is still in “exploratory mode,” city spokesman Kevin Lee said.

“A lot of what were looking at with the prosecutor’s office is what is a way we can let the public report illegal use of fireworks that leads to a better opportunity for prosecution?” Lee said. “Whether that ends up being a guide or some other mechanism, we don’t know yet.”

Many times, someone will light an illegal firework and a neighbor will report it, but if a police officer wasn’t there to see it, they can’t write a citation, Lee said.

To show the size of one firework Long Beach Police Sgt. Brad Johnson holds a 30-40 pound firework at a June 21, 2018 press conference. Photo Thomas R Cordova.

In the meantime, the city manager’s office plans to up its communications game.

In preparation for the Fourth of July holiday, officials are starting what will be a year-round public outreach effort to get people to stop setting off illegal fireworks, which include the ones labeled “safe and sane.” Even hand-held sparklers are illegal in the Long Beach, even though “safe and sane” fireworks are legal in some neighboring cities.

Lee said the city is also suggesting alternative ways to celebrate the holiday, like hosting a movie night.

“We are telling people to celebrate safely, and they can do it without fireworks,” Lee said. “We are also saying, if you need fireworks as part of your celebration, go to a professional show.”

Long Beach police and fire departments are heavily impacted by illegal fireworks, according to the memo, with both increasing arson patrols for the first five days of July.

The memo said Long Beach police also increased patrols from mid-June to July 5 in 2018 to respond to fireworks-related calls. Officers responded to more than 750 calls about fireworks during that time and on July 4 alone, police had a 12% increase in calls during a 6-hour shift, the memo said.

According to a heat map attached in the memo, the areas with the most firework-related complaints include North Alamitos Beach, some areas of North Long Beach and the Hellman, Poly and Willmore neighborhoods.

A heat map illustrating the concentration of fireworks-related calls for service from January to October 2018. Photo courtesy of Long Beach.

Last year, police issued 34 misdemeanor citations for fireworks violations, which can include up to $4,000 in fines or get the defendant put in jail for 6 months, according to the memo.

Long Beach Animal Care Services is also severely affected, and last year on July 4 alone, they took in 17 pets that likely ran away because of the noise from fireworks, the memo said. Veterans experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and babies with sensitive ears are also groups that can be harmed by the blasts, the memo mentions.

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Valerie Osier is a breaking news and crime reporter for the Long Beach Post. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from Cal State University, Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband, Steven, and her cat/child, Jones.
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