San Jose: Crackdown on fireworks ramps up with new law

The use of illegal fireworks in San Jose has exploded in recent years primarily because of law enforcement and fire personnel shortages and a lack of enforcement across the city.

But on Tuesday, fire and police officials assured local lawmakers on the city’s widespread efforts to beef up enforcement for illegal fireworks. The City Council unanimously accepted the status report, while also voting in favor of adopting a “social host” law, which places liability on the property owner that fireworks are set off from.

In recent years, the city has implemented a phone line and online system for the public to report illegal activity and recently improved its online reporting tool by strengthening its IT services and adding a translation service. City officials also integrated the reporting tool into the “MySanJose” app so residents can file direct complaints to law enforcement during holidays where illegal firework use runs rampant throughout the city.

The city has also extensively conducted outreach and for the first time partnered with local schools to promote its informational “Fed Up With Fireworks” campaign. Several middle and high schools, including Andrew P. Hill High School, Leigh High School and Dartmouth Middle School, displayed anti-fireworks campaigns on digital billboards and banners as part of the partnership.

Despite these efforts, law enforcement officials said the use of fireworks continues to run amok due to a lack of personnel. Police Chief Eddie Garcia said that for the first time in nine years, the department has increased its staffing levels, but still has trouble deploying officers to locations during holidays where firework use skyrockets.

“I think we all realize and know for a city of this size that we’re nowhere near where we need to be with regards to our patrol staffing,” said Garcia. “Second, really when we look at calls for service, it’s difficult to promise devoting resources for simple fireworks enforcement.”

Despite offering overtime to officers, many haven’t volunteered, and some days, including weekends, are busier than others, making it more difficult to allocate staff for fireworks enforcement when more serious crimes take priority. During Fourth of July this past year, only two officers in the department offered to work overtime, raising concern from several councilmembers.

Councilmember Raul Peralez acknowledged on Tuesday that while curbing fireworks use is important, it’s not as high of a priority as more serious crimes.

“As painful as it may be for some members to hear fireworks are just not as high of a priority to be addressing as many of the other crimes that are being committed throughout our community… you’ll see in the memorandum that I cosigned on to with my colleagues that we are certainly looking at other opportunities that we can do to address this,” said Peralez.

The social host ordinance, which Peralez signed onto with Mayor Sam Liccardo, Councilmembers Lan Diep, Sylvia Arenas and Johnny Khamis, will be implemented to mirror a similar law in Pacifica, which places an administrative fine on the property owner where the criminal activity took place. Arenas was adamant about needing to beef up enforcement on particular holidays.

“I completely understand that our police officers are exhausted,” said Arenas. “They’re already on overtime and demanding them for additional overtime is sometimes unreasonable — but we have to figure it out.”

Councilmember Pam Foley said she’s worried residents will complain if they don’t see results from using the MySanJose app. Foley added that the city’s educational efforts and reporting system aren’t enough to stop illegal fireworks if there’s a lack of enforcement resources.

“This really is an enforcement issue and a lack of resources. I am concerned… you can report illegal fireworks and then nothing gets done. So what will happen is the community will start complaining, ‘I reported on the MySanJose app and nobody did anything,'” Foley said. “Eventually when that happens, the illegal fireworks are just going to continue on.”

City officials said they will continue to make improvements by providing year-around reporting using the online tool, produce an online tutorial video to show residents how to use the tool and better define the information officials need to issue a citation or warning.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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