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Tacoma gets fireworks enforcement right this year

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on July 12, 2010 at 7:48 pm |
July 12, 2010 6:10 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The City of Tacoma seems to have hit the sweet spot for controlling fireworks: a total ban, decriminalization, plenty of police on the streets.

That’s not to say the city was quiet on the Fourth of July; it clearly wasn’t, as evidenced by the 688 complaints that came in before, during and after the holiday. Compare that, though, with the 918 complaints of 2007, when the City Council started treating the Fourth’s petty pyromania as a civil infraction, not a hard-to-prosecute criminal misdemeanor.

On-the-spot citations and $257 civil fines seem to impress scofflaws more than the very unlikely prospect of conviction for setting off ladyfingers. Tacoma officers handed out 65 of those stiff tickets this year compared to 10 in 2007.

That’s not quite one citation for every 10 calls. When half the city seems to be breaking the law, and evidence literally goes up in flames, that seems a pretty good average.

It helped that the Tacoma Police Department deployed as many as 12 officers at a time against the violators. Until last year, only four were running around the city, doing their best to respond to an impossible task.

Other jurisdictions weren’t so aggressive. Police in unincorporated Pierce County, Lakewood, Puyallup and some other places seem to do more confiscating and lecturing than writing tickets or arresting.

A case can be made for not deploying major police force against kids with bottle rockets. Robbery, rape and domestic violence don’t take a holiday over the Fourth.

The problem with fireworks is that while the offense itself is usually petty, the results too often aren’t. This seems to have been a relatively slow Fourth, but there were still plenty of fires, including several serious house fires, in the South Sound.

People got burned or otherwise injured. If recent trends are any guide, there were probably 7,000 or more fireworks-related injuries across the country this Fourth. Children wind up in emergency rooms – and sometimes lose fingers – to firecrackers and bigger bombs every year.

Yet dangerous fireworks are so widely accepted, tolerated and even celebrated that even a police effort as aggressive as Tacoma’s can achieve only limited damage control.

All fireworks are not created equal. The types that are legal under state law – fountains, Roman candles and the like – can be used safely under the supervision of responsible adults. They produce far less noise than firecrackers and they don’t set roofs on fire like bottle rockets.

Most of the contraband pyrotechnics in this area originate with tribal fireworks merchants, who aren’t subject to state restrictions. They can sell firecrackers and the like legally. But it would help a lot if they required their customers to use them legally – on the reservations. Or better yet, not sell explosives in the first place.

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