SAN JOSE (CBS SF) -- Illegal firework usage nearly tripled this year in San Jose compared to last year and the city needs a new way to enforce and control it.
That is what San Jose leaders unanimously said on Tuesday during their City Council meeting.
"I think it's probably time for us to think differently because obviously it isn't working," Mayor Sam Liccardo said. "We have community members and neighborhood leaders who have been engaged in this for 50 years say 'Hey guys, nobody thinks this is working.'"
Liccardo and the council voted to reevaluate the protocol for issuing citations for those using illegal fireworks -- asking for more flexibility with issuing citations.
Currently, the main way a citation can be issued is if a community member or neighbor reports firework use on the San Jose city website or hotline, captures photos or videos of the fireworks and then testifies against that person to ensure there is sufficient evidence.
All of that is needed or else the city's Planning, Building and Code Enforcement cannot issue any citation and hold the party accountable, City Attorney Nora Frimann said.
"A couple of years ago there were several, I think 40-some odd citations that had to be dismissed because of not having anything to back them up and people were saying 'I don't have fireworks' and we had nothing other than a record through the website saying you did," Frimann said. "That is part of the reasons we were trying to get more information so that codes could act on it."
In 2020, there were 6,601 online reports of illegal fireworks during a period of several weeks around the Fourth of July, nearly three times higher than a similar timeframe last year. Of those reports, 335 were actionable, meaning there were photos or video evidence. Of those 335 actionable reports, only four citations were issued by the city's Planning, Building and Code Enforcement division. This is because only four of those reporters were willing to testify against the person using the fireworks.
Of the total online reports, about a third were incomplete, which also limited the ability of code enforcement officials to respond.
Liccardo suggested that the online reporting tool be updated so that it was clear photo/video evidence and a completed report were necessary to merit any response from the city.
"If we are really adamant that we need photographic evidence, that doesn't really come through 1/8the website 3/8 ... and we need to clearly convey that 'Hey if this is incomplete we are not going to be able to actually issue a citation,'" Liccardo said.
"It would be helpful for us to have that sort of engagement with folks so we can really get reports that are actionable and hopefully end up in citations," he said.
Citations can also be issued by police, but San Jose Police Capt. Michael Kihmm said when police arrive at the scene, culprits disperse and if they don't, they deny using fireworks and officers cannot prove who set them off.
This year, San Jose police arrested three people and gave out one citation. The city's police and fire departments also confiscated about 450 pounds of illegal fireworks. In comparison, last year they confiscated about 300 pounds.
Councilmember Johnny Khamis said the increased use of illegal fireworks was likely because there were no organized firework shows on the Fourth of July as a result of COVID-19 shutdowns. He also noted that a citation was the most effective deterrent.
"Enforcement should be where it is at," Khamis said. "Nothing discourages people more than getting a ticket."
Councilmember Dev Davis noted that fireworks did not only pose as a noise nuisance but scare veterans and pets and is a threat to public safety.
"Illegal fireworks cause the most consternation for our veterans and pets and frankly the messaging has to be about vets and pets," Davis said. "I think those are a more compelling message for people to remind them to have some empathy."
In terms of public safety, fires started by illegal fireworks more than tripled from 15 in 2019 to 54 in 2020 -- 34 of which were vegetation fires and 9 building fires.
The fire department also received a 430 percent increase in the number of firework-related calls, two of which led to medical emergencies. In the last four years, none of the firework-related calls required an emergency response, according to fire department data.
Deputy Fire Chief Hector Estrada noted that enforcement was a main component of halting the use of illegal fireworks, but also noted that effective messaging, targeted advertising and education would also be an effective method.
"Behavioral changes require effective and timely messaging," Estrada said. "We were able to use data and were more effective with our reach in our community context."
He noted the targeting messaging led to a 300 percent increase in web pageviews, bus and billboard ads garnered over 5 million impressions and click-through rates for online ads went up 500 percent.
Councilmember Pam Foley said that she would much rather see a team of active community members spearhead messaging for San Jose instead of hiring an "expensive consultant," but ultimately the best strategy is to issue more citations to violators.
However, a citation is similar to a criminal offense, so the city attorney's office recommended giving out warnings instead of citations when there was not enough evidence, Frimann said.
This year, 331 warnings were issued and in 2019 there were 150 according to the fire department data. Councilmember Raul Peralez said issuing too many warnings, however, could backfire.
"If we spend too many years in a row and too many holidays in a row issuing warning letters to the potential same people, at this point ... people know that we are doing essentially nothing besides warning letters," Peralez said.
San Jose resident Tina Morro suggested the city use drones and allocate more overtime to police so that those using illegal fireworks would be caught.
However, San Jose resident Robert Bender fervently disagreed and called the banning of illegal fireworks "totally un-American."
Frimann said her office will look at ways to increase citations issued in a legal and fair way.
To report illegal firework activity, people can visit https://www.sanjoseca.gov/your-government/departments/fire-department/public-education/fireworks-rules-laws.
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