EL CENTRO — During the El Centro City Council meeting Tuesday, January 19, one of the topics on the agenda was fireworks going off well after the holidays and the many calls the El Centro Police Department received. Residents called from Farmer Estates, concerned for their animals and other community members as they become anxious with the ongoing fireworks, and officers are spread too thin when responding to the calls.
Police Chief Brian Johnson opened his presentation stating that he has three dogs and empathizes with pet owners. He said “safe and sane” fireworks are legal in the City of El Centro. He believes that people, for the most part, abide by the laws.
According to Health and Safety Code 12529, safe and sane fireworks are, “any fireworks which do not come within the definition of ‘dangerous fireworks’ or ‘exempt fireworks.’”
The El Centro Police Department received 38 calls for illegal fireworks during the 4th of July holiday last year. Johnson believes there is a correlation with what happened during Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Out of the 38 calls for service, 28 of them were UTL, or unable to locate — meaning the police were unable to find the person(s) responsible for using those fireworks.
In 2021, Johnson said there were 30 calls for illegal fireworks — with 16 UTL.
He said firework calls are a lower priority but emphasized all the calls received by the police department were addressed. However, by the time officers respond to the calls, many are self-resolved. If citations must be given, Johnson lets his officers exercise discretion and reasonable action.
“Where do we go from here, moving forward,” Johnson asked. After rereading the fireworks ordinance, he said it does not need to be rewritten. He believes, “it supports our ability to take enforcement action.”
Johnson said the fireworks are not only an El Centro problem, but an Imperial County problem as well. He asked the mayor and council about implementing a zero-tolerance approach, stating that while it is something they can do, it will require extra staffing.
The silver lining, according to the chief, is the possibility of implementing the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Program to address the issue, which was a pilot project in October 2020. UAS allows officers, firefighters, and public works to use a drone to assess a particular scene. For officers, it could be used to assess a hostage situation, a standoff, or find a missing person. Johnson proposed that it can be used to find people that are UTL. UAS cannot be used for general surveillance, nor does it have facial recognition features.
Johnson again reassured that the firework issue is something he takes seriously and opened the floor to questions. Mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker asked if the zero-tolerance rule is for illegal fireworks only, or for both illegal and safe and sane fireworks. Johnson said he doesn’t like the term “zero tolerance,” and again stated that he wants his officers to use discretion.
When officers get to the scene, Johnson hopes that after they evaluate all the evidence, that they will make a sound decision.
“Yes, I want to continue to have safe and sane fireworks,” he said, “but we will talk about a more aggressive approach and not use the term ‘zero tolerance’ for enforcement related activity.”
No action was taken on the matter as it was presented as an informational item. For any additional enforcement, the City Council must hold another meeting and decide at a later date.