Friday, June 29, 2007

Let the games begin

This weekend will mark the beginning of The Fourth of July fun for LPD. Nothing against, Independence Day, but the 4th pretty much marks the high water of police workload in Lincoln. It's the busiest single day for us. We'll hover at around 500 dispatches--about 30% above our daily average.

You can watch the week unfold yourself. Keep an eye on the climbing number of disturbances. That's a reflection of the deluge of calls reporting illegal fireworks. the 4th was on Tuesday last year, and starting on the Friday preceding, we dispatched officers to 468 fireworks calls. Lincoln's very restrictive fireworks ordinance essentially means that anything that goes bang is illegal. Here's the specific list of permissible fireworks: sparklers, vesuvius fountains, spray fountains, torches, color firecones, star and comet-type color aerial shells without explosive charge for the purpose of making a noise, and color wheels. That's it. Every firecracker you hear and bottle rocket you see is illegal. And of course, anything prior to the 3rd is out, too.

Illegal fireworks are a problem for us, because half the public seems to be disenchanted with the fact that we can't make it stop, and the other half thinks we're stupid for trying, and ought to let them alone. Some people get incredibly wound up about this. I'll have to explain to a dozen callers-to-the-chief, correspondants-to-the-city-council, or complainers-to-the-mayoral-ombudsman that we really can't just shoot a couple of fifth graders and leave their bodies in the street as a warning to others.

It's not that the law is impossible to enforce, and we'll write a scores of citations for illegal fireworks. You catch the slow, the drunk, and the young. You ask them to knock it off. If they persist, or flunk the attitude test, a citation is in the offing. Nobody talks to their neighbor and just asks them to cool it: they just call the police to have us do it. The violations we encounter are primarily handled with warnings, because the volume is just so huge that the paper work would crush you, even if you were inclined to adopt a take-no-prisoners approach. It isn't ideal, but it's about the best we can do.

The kids are particularly problematic. Clogging up the juvenile system with a few hundred arrests for illegal fireworks that will subsequently be dismissed, and serious marring police-community relations in the process sounds like a great idea.

And no, before you start in on me, we can't arrest the parents for the acts of the child. That's not the way the law is written, and that's not my fault. I don't write the laws or pass the laws, despite what some of the gun nuts constantly claim. You cannot, as much as you might wish, bang on the door, get mom out of her apron, take the dish towel away from dad, and trundle them both off to the slammer because junior is blowing up his sister's Barbie doll in the driveway with Black Cats. It's junior you'll have to cuff and stuff.

Truth be told, the police are pretty ineffective in dealing with violations when a large plurality of the public will not voluntarily obey the law. We're great at dealing with the fringe, but when the fringe is as big as the whole, that's a real problem for us. And on this one, the violators are often straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting: mom and dad, the kids, grandma and grandpa, decorating the bikes for the neighborhood parade while popping off bottle rockets. Real SWAT Team material.

I engaged in a preemptive public relations campaign last year aimed at laying a little guilt on the otherwise law-abiding citizens who are buying illegal fireworks for their kids. That was about as effective as a damp punk. I'm not quite sure what to do, frankly. Lincoln's citizens have got to decide for themselves what they really want. The police are currently being placed in an untenable position.


Chris said...

Oh my Lord... Your comment about shooting a couple of 5th graders and leaving them in the street as a warning to the others made me spit coffee at my computer monitor.That's hilarious - and is a distinct reminder of my own father who taught Jr. High school for 18 years and went on to become a Principal in another state. He'd say things like that from time to time. (With a twinkle in his eye of course.)

When my relatives and friends in other states say "So... Lincoln, Nebraska, huh. What's it like there?" I often respond

"Well, it's a pretty neat town. You'd ought to see it on the 4th of July though. WOW."

As a relative newcomer to Lincoln who lived in a couple of other states before moving here, I have to say that I am very surprised to hear the ACTUAL law regarding fireworks. From what I had observed on my street and the surrounding ones, there were apparently NO laws regarding fireworks. The people through my neighborhood shoot off stuff so big that I'd think they have to have explosives licenses to handle and transport them. I'm a fairly well traveled person, and am cynical enough that not much makes me do a double-take, but I have stood on the sidewalk slack-jawed & flabbergasted the past two 4th of July holidays at the cacophony of noise and color on my own street. I've paid to see fireworks shows in other places that did not compare.

It is interesting to me that in 8 summers of living in Denver, Colorado, I never saw anyone shoot off fireworks in thier own yard. They have a complete ban on fireworks, and it seemed to be enforced pretty well. If you were caught in possession of firecrackers, it was an immediate $200 citation. Arial shells carried larger fines. Every city in the metro area had a free fireworks show in some park, and they were VERY well attended.

Seems to me that Lincoln needs to make up its mind. Do we want to have fireworks in town or not? If not - get serious about fines and don't allow sales in the city limits. Set stiff fines and have the media heavily involved in publicizing it for a week ahead of time.

Otherwise, the city council (or whomever is incharge of creating city ordinances) should get real and lessen the restrictions. It is not fair to the police department to have to be the "bad guy" in a situation where the proletariat is clearly in favor of playing with fire.

Why drive to the river boats when you can gamble in your front yard- against losing a hand or eye, or burning down a house with an errant shell. Fun stuff!

Mr. Wilson said...

You say you can't shuttle mom and dad off to jail for their kids' actions. Fair enough. But couldn't you ticket mom and dad for neglect or child endangerment for allowing their children to play with fire and explosives, especially while unattended?

I'm not actually advocating that you do that, mind you. I'm neither naive enough to think it would have much of an effect, nor mean enough that I would put officers through the likely $*#!storm that would follow. I'm just curious.

Having managed fireworks tents a few times -- and being a former firecracker junkie myself -- I've learned a lot about the bizarre culture that drives people to irresponsibly blow stuff up this time of year. All the enforcement in the world is useless as long as the culture exists.

Anonymous said...

If Lincoln wants to truly ban fireworks - the MAYOR needs to step up - indicate he is directing the police to enforce the law without (much) discretion - and then the police dept needs to issue a citation for every single violation reported.

They need to assign 2 officers the sole task of driving neighborhoods, and responding to what they personally observe - complete w/ citation and confiscation.

I accept the premise that the "paperwork would crush you" the FIRST year the law is enforced. I suggest that after that first tough year, we'd all be surprised that what the following years would bring.

Clearly your approach right now is ineffective. Again, I'm not trying to be directly critical but it really isn't working.

I really compare this in some ways to UNL students parking in faculty lots. It rarely happens because (at least when I was at UNL) you knew that you were guaranteed a ticket (not a warning) and likely a tow of your vehicle. The zero tolerance that the parking enforcement showed, kept me out of those lots period.

One other comment - it would seem to me that the PD and the City Attorney could come up with some agreement as to what the CA needs to prosecute a fireworks ticket - and make that paperwork a little less oppresive.

You've done it with offenses such as shoplifting - where a photo of the stolen merchandise is sufficient - no need to log it into evidence. etc. I have to think that with a little bit of creative thinking, something could be cooked up to make life easier here as well.

Finally - just a quick prayer to all those officers out there - in the heat, carrying 20+lbs of pistol belts, vests, etc. and giving up their holiday to try to keep us all safe in spite of ourselves.

foxspit said...

I used to enjoy the Fourth of July until I moved to Lincoln where every street seems to be a battle zone where you hope your car doesn't get shot with mortars and you weave between the carcasses of exploded ordnance.

A lack of common courtesy and common sense has made me wish that fireworks were illegal in the City.

cop star said...

Right on, Chief. Maybe we, as a department, should lobby to change the law to make most fireworks LEGAL so it would eliminate the silly explosion of calls we experience...pun intended.
And, maybe they should start publishing your blog in the Journal Star as a daily column so more people would read some sense and quit being ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I've lived in Lincoln, Nebraska my whole life, so I'm not sure how we compare to other States on the 4th.

I do remember about 8 years ago our neighbor was on the new because they were setting off dry ice bombs on the 4th. The police were never contacted, just the channel 8 News Team.

I know the LPD can’t be everywhere on the 4th, so I hope parents will be watching there kids closely.

Good Luck LPD, I hope this 4th of July won’t be one on the record books.


Michael said...

I have an antifireworks bias. In my younger days, I enjoyed igniting bottlerockets, firecrackers, and roman candles, but as I age, I become less and less enchanted by them.

I feel for my neighbors (and others), whose pets are driven to distraction by the incessant popping, snapping, and banging. I dread the day after the fourth, when the street is going to be ankle-deep in stinky cardboard tubes, tiny scraps of paper, and wads of tissue.

Some of the displays are pretty, I suppose, but are they worth it?

These are the thoughts that cross my mind when I pick up the phone to call dispatch when someone down the street, typically someone I don't know or talk to, is illegally igniting illegal fireworks imported from Missouri. I want to improve the quality of life for myself and my other law-abiding neighbors by trying to keep the noise within the specified limits and diminishing the detritus laying around in the street.

Chief, you've written eloquently about the eroding social fabric, and how the erosion makes your job tougher, and I feel your pain. It's just this erosion that makes it hard to approach neighbors and their friends and ask them to "cool it". My experiences with doing just that have been, if they are engaging in anti-social behavior to start with, they will behave anti-socially when asked to stop. They can, and have and will, tell me to stick it. I have no way, legally, to escalate the consequences of the continued anti-social behavior except to resort to calling the police. In some cases, I still start by approaching the subject, but I frequently just skip the unpleasant middle step. And I feel for the officer who is going to have to deal with the unpleasantness that I am avoiding, but at least the officer can write a citation when the subject fails the "attitude test".

I believe all this to be expression of a sense of freedom without associated responsibility and self-esteem without associated merit.

Chief, I wonder what you think about the broken window theory, that minor transgressions in an area, such as illegally shooting off fireworks, tend to lead to more major transgressions. This is another factor motivating me to make sure the illegal fireworks are squelched. (I live in an LMI, "downtown" neighborhood, in case you haven't guessed.)

Those of us who make the calls do appreciate the job you (and all of LPD) do, and the citations you do write. If the current state of the law is effectively unenforceable, maybe it's time to help the department out by a general call for a change in the ordinances. Perhaps sterner penalties would discourage some, and make the number of calls more manageable. Maybe a general and comprehensive ban would be more effective and enforceable. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Tom Casady said...

Lot's of stuff to respond to.

Chris: Why is it that in some cities--Denver, Tempe, Mesa--fireworks bans seem to be widely obeyed? Not, I'll venture, because the police are fast on the draw. I suspect it's the existence of such a strong community consensus, that people are dissuaded from being the social misfits. Or maybe it's just the greater fire risk that does it. Or maybe a total ban creates a better consensus on what's acceptable than a partial ban like Lincoln's.

Mr. Wilson: pretty iffy, and largely dependent on the age and maturity of the child. The statute says "Placed in a situation that endangers his or her life or physical or mental health." By that measure, I think a six year old given a bag of fireworks and a butane lighter would be a darned good child abuse case. I imagine that we've made arrests for child abuse in very similar circumstances before.

But the 12 year old is a different matter, as is the 15 year-old who is "watching" his nine year-old brother. Bottom dollar: I think you'd have a very hard time getting a prosecutor to file or a court to convict unless it was something clearly over the top.

By the way, how about an 11 year old with an internal combustion engine attached to a whirling sharp blade?

Anonymous 10:25:

Hoo rah. Problem is, two officers wouldn't come close, and if you started writing every ticket you saw, you'd not make it very far into the Highlands, and you'd have nobody to respond to the other stuff going on. Once the cat's out of the bag, it's hard to stuff it back in. The strategy you describe is exactly what we employed with the smoking prohibition, but on that issue, we never let the cat out of the bag in the first place. I'm pretty sure if we adopted your approach in a vacuum, we'd be savagely criticized. Here's what it would take, IMHO: the careful building of a much, much stronger community consensus that this is wrong, and that we will stand behind the police when they attempt to crush it. That's the whole point of my original blog post--there seems to be no such strong support and consensus. I have an idea for how it might be built, though: a serious little discussion of an outright total ban on fireworks. From an enforcement standpoint, the police are better off with an all or nothing. Thanks for the prayer.

Michael: I agree. My personal opinion is the same as yours. I am a big believer in the importance of taking care of the little stuff. See my prior post on the huge number of arrest we make, and take my challenge. That's one of the reasons the loose enforcement of the partial fireworks ban bothers me so much--it sends the wrong message.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Cop Star - just make fireworks legal and forget about trying to overcome the general consensus that fireworks are ok. Besides, making them legal then removes the appeal of doing something illegal and getting away with it and perhaps, in a twisted sort of way, we'll actually have fewer people using fireworks irresponsibly.

And I like Casady's remark about an 11 year old with an internal combustion engine attached to a whirling sharp blade. A lot of things we do are potentially dangerous (like driving cars and mowing our lawns and using steak knives to cut our meat). Done in a responsible manner with consideration for others, I think that things such as shooting off fireworks, driving a car, mowing one's lawn, playing music, and using leaf blowers and air compressors are OK.

Alyssa said...

I think it's funny you mentioned the Highlands. I used to live out there (my parents still do) and we have VERY inconsiderate neighbors who literally aim their illegal fireworks at our yard when they set them off. We have never called the police and don't intend to because we know you have more important matters to attend to(seriously!) and we just spend the next week or so cleaning up the mess they have left in our yard.

People started shooting fireworks off out there about two weeks ago or at least that's when I started noticing the remnants of them in the streets. I've never understood what the big deal is about buying illegal fireworks out of town/state and then hauling them back to Lincoln to set off. Must have something to do with showing off/bragging rights, etc.

Like others I didn't know most fireworks you can see or hear are illegal...I just wish other people knew it and would play by the rules. I would not be against a total ban if it resulted in peace & quiet and no mess to clean up. God forbid the neighbors should have to clean up after themselves!

Been There, Done That said...

As a street cop answering all those late 4th of July calls, I can not agree with the chief more. It's an extremely frustrating and tiring night to work as valuable police resources are spent dealing with calls being generated by irresponsible citizens. It is my experience that it is the day and night when even the year round "responsible citizen" loses their minds, all in the name of a "good time." My worst fear is that I am handling a fireworks call and one of my beat partners gets hurt in a critical incident because I wasn't there to back him/her. Parents need to lead by example at all times, just not 364 days a year.

Anonymous said...

Gee thats the best best blog ever.....I near peed my pants

Anonymous said...

To Michael. The broken window theory approach to policing Lincoln would bring about a miraculous change in Lincoln. Every hard working officer in Lincoln would welcome it. But the fact of the matter is that when the few officers on the street can barely keep up with the calls to dispatch there is no time for "broken windows." Staffing on the third and Fourth of July will be the same as on a Tuesday in December, which, I hate to say, is almost criminal. I'm not sure who's crime it is but my daughter has started asking me before I go to work if "we are below minimum." I don't think she quite understands but does know that it makes me mad and it scares her mother...whatever a minimum is. Chief we are begging you, raise some hell with the city and get us some cops.

Michael said...

Having also just recently moved here from Denver I can also speak about there. The ban was a result of almost a full decade of drought and the fire hazard that fireworks are. With the memory of serious wildfires in the state I believe that's why may accepted the ban without much question.

harphaulr said...

Have been reading your blog almost from its inception and it has been most educational. Just had to comment on this seemingly lighter entry.

I for one am quite old enough to know better but thoroughly enjoy setting off my own fireworks; the louder, higher and brighter the better. Legislating out whatever ban we have in place wouldn't hurt my feelings.

It occurs to me that for the last few decades we are legislating common sense right out of our vocabulary. Re fireworks, seems the instructions are pretty simple - place on ground, light fuse, get away. Don't point at people or flammable objects. So for the minority who don't understand this or can't figure it out on their own we let our elected representatives pass laws so we don't have to think about these things for ourselves. Then you get stuck having to enforce those laws. I won't start on the lawsuits this has bred.

I know you can't please everybody but another observation is Lincoln's finest, often under difficult circumstances, does a commendable job of prioritizing calls for service on-the-fly. Let’s see, injury accident or fireworks call; bar shooting or fireworks call. Why do some people have to think about that so hard and for so long?

Oh, you won't need to prioritize a fireworks call on me as I'm igniting fireworks that are illegal in Lincoln. This part-time lawbreaker will be out of both Lincoln and Lancaster County, placing fireworks on the ground, lighting the fuse and getting away, and pointing the type that leave the ground toward an empty field.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Been There, Done That. As a dispatcher/call-taker for the City/County 911 center it amazes me that people call 911, yes you read it correctly, people call 911 for fireworks complaints. And, as BTDT said, I do not want any of my officers to get hurt while his/her beat partners are responding to one of the many fireworks calls.

GMP said...

My husband did NOT blow up his sisters' Barbie doll in the driveway with Black Cats!!! It was the Barbie doll car, and it was smoke bombs!!!!!

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