July 4, 2022
Last year, as the Fourth of July approached, Ferndale, Washington community member Glenn Stewart put together a 20 page document addressing his concerns over threats and damage that fireworks – especially those identified as illegal within Ferndale city limits – posed to the animals, humans, and property there.
Stewart circulated his researched report among City of Ferndale government leaders and was called before a City Council committee to present on it. That opportunity to speak was interrupted and cut off at 4 minutes, according to Stewart.
Meanwhile, the report did also garner email responses from Ferndale’s Mayor Greg Hansen, and Ferndale Police Department Chief Kevin Turner. (Incidentally, Stewart shared that he had not sent his report to the Ferndale Police Chief.) This post will provide email exchanges between Stewart and those two officials to help highlight the obstacles in the way of gaining local government support for increased fireworks safety.
One year later, there has been scant apparent effort by Ferndale officials in terms of educating their community members about current fireworks regulations and ways to protect both animals and humans from the most harmful effects, especially from those fireworks which are illegal.
For example, after Mayor Hansen had committed to a “‘much more robust education campaign around the use of fireworks in Ferndale neighborhoods,” in his email to Stewart, there has been only one post about July 4th on the City’s Facebook page leading up to the holiday this year, and it said nothing about fireworks safety.
The Ferndale Police Department did provide two posts on their Facebook page, one posted on June 30, 2022, picturing types of legal and illegal fireworks, and one on June 28, 2022, sharing a brief video from back in 2019 where, in the last minute of the 1 minute 45 second video, a few safety tips were offered.
One of the tips in the video seemed to support the use of fireworks that shoot above the height of people’s homes, dissuading people from actually aiming them at their neighbors’ residences. No reference was made in the video to point out the types of fireworks that are not permitted, or potential enforcement actions that could result in response to illegal fireworks possession and usage.
Besides such minimal social media postings, Stewart – who is a civically-engaged resident of Ferndale – did not encounter, and was not the recipient of any fireworks safety materials sent out from the City.
Below are the emails sent to Stewart from Ferndale Mayor Greg Hansen and Ferndale Police Chief Kevin Turner, along with an email sent from Stewart after he had received those emails. The communications are posted in that order.
On Friday, May 21, 2021 at 4:05 PM, Greg Hansen wrote:
As I’m sure you can appreciate, fireworks are not a simple or straightforward issue for Ferndale. I can absolutely sympathize with most of the concerns you have expressed in this email, in the summary you provided Council, and on social media. As an adult, I’ve never really been much of a fan of fireworks on the Fourth of July and my poor dog spends the entire week cowering under our bed.
At the same time, Ferndale has had a long history with fireworks – being neighbors with the Lummi Nation. I remember being a kid and riding my bicycle out Haxton road to the firework stands to buying illegal fireworks – without my parent’s permission – like a rite of passage. In my estimation, our community is divided on the issue.
While I understand your view that this isn’t a Police Department “resource” issue, I disagree. But more to the point, the notion of having police officers “stroll down the street” through Ferndale’s neighborhoods confiscating fireworks and writing tickets simply feels too draconian for my comfort level – not the Ferndale community I want to see and not the way I believe the majority of our community want to be policed.
Moreover, even if we made fireworks illegal in the City of Ferndale and even if we were able to enforce a ban, being adjacent to the Lummi Reservation and the greater county area, we would still receive all the impacts from firework use as our neighbors to the north, east and west.
That said, here’s what I can do. I can commit to a much more robust education campaign around the use of fireworks in Ferndale neighborhoods, to making Ferndale residents aware of what is legal and illegal withing the City Limits, and to building awareness of how some individuals’ illegalfireworks activities have a profound impact on pet owners, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and their Ferndale neighbors.
Every Ferndale administration has had to wrestle with this contentious issue, but none have found a solution that works for everyone.
Thank you, as always, for reaching out.
Greg C. Hansen
Mayor – City of Ferndale
2095 Main St. (City Hall)
Ferndale, WA 98248
On Monday, May 24, 2021 at 11:08 AM, Kevin Turner wrote:
(City Council Bcc’d)
I wanted to send a reply to your summary paper and follow up email regarding fireworks and enforcement in our city. I appreciate the time and effort you put into this, it is apparent you are passionate about this subject and your summary was well written and supported.
As a follow up from the police perspective, I would like to clarify this issue is definitely not ignored or “not enforced” as you suggested. If we can locate a person(s) responsible for using illegal fireworks, and build enough evidence to support a case, we are more than happy to send the information to the prosecutor for charges. However, this is more difficult than it may appear.
As an example, a citizen sees a large firework go up, or has a complaint due to some of the other circumstances you described, and the police are called. An officer responds to the area within a short period of time (if they are not already on another call). The officer then must comb the area and look for the culprit. If the person is still around, the officer then has to interview the person in hopes to identify them. From there, since this is a crime or infraction that occurred outside of the officer’s direct witness, the officer would have to illicit a specific confession from the person responsible, be able to testify that the particular firework was illegal and collect verifiable evidence. Additionally, we must prove the act occurred within the city limits and gather witness statements verifying this because the act did not occur in front of the officer. If there is a breakdown or failure in any one of these areas, then we do not have a case. The biggest issue we face is trying to figure out where the firework came from and find the person responsible.
This is by far not a lack of enforcement; this is more circumstantial to the situation. This type of violation must be completely supported as outlined or there just is no case. As you can imagine, covering a city of over 15,000 people with many other calls occurring compounds the difficulty of trying to find a suspect of an illegal firework violation. The vast majority of those subjects we do find very quickly claim it was not them, and without a direct witness willing to point the person out and face them in court to testify against them, we are lost.
Additionally, we just do not get a lot of calls each year on this. Officers are given the fireworks complaint information and do what they can. We have charged these offenses before, and we take any illegal fireworks we find however, there are few complaints and for the last two years we have not found any illegal fireworks or been able to successfully support a case of a fireworks violation. There just is not a large call load regarding this. I am not sure where you draw your data from regarding fireworks calls but, I can tell you for July 4th in 2019 we had 9 fireworks related calls for service all day, and for July 4th 2020 we had 5. These were dispatched and resulted in no cases or charges, and no damages were reported by the callers.
Again, this is not as simple of a situation as it may appear; however, taking into consideration the totality of the circumstances, the call load, complaint numbers, and considering available police resources, our current fireworks laws, parameters, and practices appear to satisfy a city-wide approach on this subject. I sympathize with your position, especially as a pet owner myself, and I hope this helps give more perspective. Please let me know if you have any questions.
Chief Kevin Turner
Ferndale Police Department
2220 Main St.
Ferndale, WA 98248
Phone: (360) 483-5721
FAX: (360) 384-3345
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On Monday, June 14, 2021 at 6:41 PM, Glenn Stewart wrote:
Dear Chief Turner, June 14, 2021
Thank you for your thoughtful, detailed response to my letter to Greg Hanson [sic] and the Council. I agree this issue is fraught to be sure, but not for the reasons you cite. Your letter contained far more detail, but was otherwise nearly identical to Greg’s, so this will serve as a response to both.
My primary concern, what really drives me personally is the cruelty to mine and thousands of pets and other confined animals during the firework barrage, not to mention the property damage I’ve personally experienced. But that proves not enough either legally or politically.
I’m sure you’re correct that the department has attempted to enforce fireworks laws in the past, though you offer no examples. There is no record of enforcement efforts during the last 6 years according to department archives. Your system apparently does not retain 911 call-records for more than 2 years, 2016 is however available in which there were at least (18) 911 calls about fireworks. There are additionally records of two incidents where officers responded to 911 calls, one in 2017, and one in 2018. No citations were written and apparently no warnings given based upon the officers’ reports. That’s consistent with my twice being told in your department’s response to my records-request that, “We had no citations written and do not give written warnings.”
You wrote in your letter to me, “We have charged these offenses before, and we take any illegal fireworks we find however, there are few complaints and for the last two years we have not found any illegal fireworks or been able to successfully support a case of a fireworks violation.” I checked only as far back as 2016—In your department’s response no record of charges-laid for fireworks violations were included.
Officer Gamage engaged a man complaining about illegal fireworks being discharged near his home. In his incident report of July 4, 2018, Officer Gamage (remarkably) wrote the following: “He [the complainant] pointed out the numerous displays going on in the area. I saw that he was correct in that his neighbors were lighting off large devices, but those were no larger or louder than what I’d seen in basically every area of the city throughout the shift. There was no obvious hazard.” It’s likely the ‘large devices’ the officer witnessed being discharged were illegal, as large devices are generally banned by the State.
I disagree with your characterization of what’s involved in enforcing State and (therefore) local fireworks laws. Most of the offenses can be charged as misdemeanors(though felony charges are available under some conditions), as such, I doubt a few relatively minor fireworks citations a few days a year would overwhelm either a prosecutor or a police department.
In your letter to me you imagine one scenario to illustrate your point: “As an example, a citizen sees a large firework go up, or has a complaint due to some of the other circumstances you described, and the police are called. An officer responds to the area within a short period of time (if they are not already on another call). The officer then must comb the area and look for the culprit. If the person is still around, the officer then has to interview the person in hopes to identify them. From there, since this is a crime or infraction that occurred outside of the officer’s direct witness, the officer would have to illicit a specific confession from the person responsible, be able to testify that the particular firework was illegal and collect verifiable evidence…”
Allow me another scenario, which occurred last July: On the evening of the fourth last year I called 911 twice to report a barrage of illegal incendiary rockets landing on my house and further, M-80’s, also illegal, were being discharged at regular intervals a few meters away. From my house one could see immediately their origin within a small area of certainty—They originated from the house (or houses) directly behind mine. Unlike your imagined-scenario, no officer came to take a report or to investigate.
Had the police come, they would have seen what I was seeing and hearing (in fact Officer Gamage, in 2018, did see what I was seeing), and it would have been as obvious to the officer as it was to my neighbors and me as we watched in horror. A drive around the corner (no need to “comb the area,” or to ‘search people’s cars,’ per Greg’s letter to me) would reveal perhaps dozens of people in possession of illegal fireworks, which would be, concerning evidentiary rules, “In Plain Sight.” Indeed my neighbors have invited me to attend their largely illegal display.
In order to see for myself I’ve walked around the block on the 4th a number of times and what I see each time are tables and chairs in individual yards and driveways stacked with illegal fireworks, their proud owners nearby. Presumably the officer would see the same thing.
The officer, now ‘witness’ to the illegal fireworks present, is free to issue warnings informing the residents that the illegal fireworks he’s looking at are banned everywhere but the Reservation; the illegal fireworks may then be confiscated or not at the officer’s discretion. Also at the officer’s discretion, he or she may write a citation for simply possessing the fireworks on Ferndale land—-No ‘independent’ witness and no ‘confession’ required. The State patrol writes citations and confiscates fireworks all the time.
I don’t say a citation should be written—probably not for a ‘first offense,’ but I do push-back against your assertion that it’s mired in legal problems, and therefore somehow undoable.
“Additionally,” you wrote to me, “we must prove the act occurred within the city limits and gather witness statements.” That’s a non-sequitur since I assume the officers all know where the city limits are. We can agree that I’m not suggesting enforcement outside the city limits, for the State Patrol, the Sheriff, and the Tribal Police are already doing that.
“I am not sure where you draw your data from regarding fireworks calls but, I can tell you for July 4th in 2019 we had 9 fireworks related calls for service all day, and for July 4th 2020 we had 5.” My data-source is your department in response to my “Request for Public Disclosure” submitted 2 times, May 5th this year and another soon thereafter. My second request revealed, as mentioned above, 18 calls on July 4th, 2016. According to your staff, there were 14 calls last year, and 20 the year previous, and no citations were written in the past two years. I’ll accept whatever number y’all decide is the final number, in part because the actual number of complaints is irrelevant. If a driver is breaking a traffic law, no ‘complaint’ is required to cite the offender.
In so far as “confessions” and “witnesses,” that seems an odd standard in the case of fireworks. “Plain sight” rules apply to illegal fireworks just as they do to drugs, weapons, or any other illegally possessed commodity. If you catch me in possession of illegal fireworks, whether or not I happen to be firing them-off at the time, neither you nor a prosecutor requires a “confession” to charge or convict me for possessing them. I may be cited, required to appear in court, and should I deny it, the officer who witnessed the violation, and the fireworks confiscated would presumably be presented as evidence. Additionally, “I didn’t know they were illegal” is no more a defense than “I didn’t know the speed limit.”
Laws are not written in order to eliminate crime, for that’s impossible. They are written in order to give the authorities the ability to sanction those who break them, thus reducing violations. If there’s another reason to have State and local laws governing fireworks other than having those laws effectively employed to mitigate the reckless, persistent, widespread discharge of illegal fireworks in Ferndale, I’m open to hearing it.
The expectation of citation or sanction is enough for most citizens—If people know the rules, and if there is a promise to enforce them, most will comply. Speed-traps don’t eliminate speeders, murder laws don’t prevent all murders—The possibility of enforcement is what modifies the behavior of those not yet caught.
In so far as “resources” are concerned, I would say we’re talking about a legitimate effort 2 or 3 days a year. A few well-publicized citations and/or a few direct warnings have proven elsewhere to diminish the problem, even if it’s not eliminated. I’ll explain.
I’ve spoken with dozens of city officials and law enforcement personnel, including a State Patrol representative and State Fire Marshall over the past six-months. They have told me that their efforts to educate, warn, and in some cases issue citations have helped a lot. They’ve taken a variety of approaches, which range from the creative to the rudimentary, such as confiscation and a simple “ban,” i.e., Anacortes, Friday Harbor, etc.
My question is: Over 100 Washington cities, many with fewer resources than our city, have managed to mitigate the problem (I did not say ‘eliminate’ it), but by yours and Greg’s estimation, similar efforts and results are somehow near-impossible for Ferndale, why is that? (I’m with Lincoln on this one—When informed by his generals that Union troops could not pursue Lee’s army, he asked in response, “Do our horses not run as fast as theirs?”)
The priorities of the Police Department are of course your purview. Still, as a resident I’m bewildered by yours and Greg’s response to mine, as they’re largely treatises on why it cannot be done, even why it should not be done, not to mention tenuous assertions, i.e., “You have to catch them in the act” or get a “confession,” and “you need witnesses” [which you do, but the officer who caught them in possession of illegal fireworks will do].
Mayor Hanson has promised a robust public education campaign (he did not say when), which I fully support and greatly appreciate. To be truly “robust” I believe such a project would be far more effective if the law enforcement-wing of city government was involved in some way or another.
So, what do I and many of my fellow Ferndale residents, particularly thousands of pet owners want? Fair question.
· The ‘robust’ public education campaign Greg promised is a start. But a mention on the city website is inadequate (“That’s where information goes to die”).
· We put out yard-signs to announce the water schedule; the same can be done regarding fireworks.
· A graphic can be included in the monthly mailing to the residents.
· The police department can highlight the issue on their public facing media.
· Other local media should be employed as well, including local newspapers, websites, and social media.
· An announced, stepped-up patrol of the neighborhoods on July 3rd, 4th, and 5th, especially where the worst/most persistent offences occur is in order.
Any attempt to reach the residents concerning this issue should inform them of what’s legal and what’s not. And the message should include in no uncertain terms the civil and criminal penalties possible should they violate the law.
By next year, should a sufficient education campaign be implemented immediately, the city will gain data as to the relative success or failure of their effort. Once in, the data can be considered, and further and/or different measures applied if needed in future seasons.
If you’ve read this far I’m grateful. Take care. Yours, Glenn