It’s not even Halloween, but police chiefs in St. Charles County are already thinking about July 4.
Lake Saint Louis Police Chief Chris DiGiuseppi told the city’s Board of Aldermen at its Oct. 2 work session that he would try to convene an “exploratory committee,” comprised of public safety providers, neighborhood representatives, residents, the Lake Saint Louis Community Association and others, to gather recommendations on ways to limit the private use of fireworks around the July 4 holiday.
“Consistently everybody says fireworks are a mess no matter what you do,” DiGiuseppi explained. He said people simply are going to shoot them off and regulation and enforcement will remain difficult or impossible. “The question we need to pose is how we can lessen the amount of fireworks being shot off.”
City officials aren’t promising new regulations restricting or legalizing fireworks.
The city has banned the procession, ignition and display of fireworks for years. DiGiuseppi said the city tries to be consistent in how it enforces ordinance violations, with police first issuing warning seeking voluntary compliance. If that doesn’t work, police officers can issue a summons. However, the city doesn’t issue a lot of summons for fireworks violations.
Last year, the police issued one summons notice; none were issued in the two years previous. If issuing more summons would deter use, police would issue more, he said, but past history suggests that wouldn’t work.
A few years ago, the city had a zero-tolerance policy that had police seizing all fireworks. The fireworks were placed in two 55-gallon drums that were filled with water. “We had to have the bomb squad come pick them up the next day, when the holiday was over because they are dangerous,” DiGiuseppi said. “The third year everyone shot fireworks off.”
DiGiuseppi said fireworks calls can overwhelm police particularly on July 4 when officers also handle issues with the public fireworks display that involves shutting down streets, crowd control and security issues. Police priorities between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on July 4 are the display and handling normal emergency calls.
One call complaining about fireworks may really involve 40 or 50 fireworks violations, he said.
Another issue is the ability to make the case for a summons. Police have to be able to give a prosecutor proof beyond a reasonable doubt that there is a violation. That means officers have to witness someone shooting off or possessing fireworks or they must have a written statement from a witness. “A lot of times you find you have people who don’t want to rat on their neighbors,” he said.
Between June 1 and July 10, 2017, Lake Saint Louis police had 50 fireworks calls. They had 43 for the same period in 2016 and 65 in 2015.
DiGiuseppi said police chiefs in O’Fallon and St. Peters, cities that have total bans on fireworks, said they have similar problems – overwhelming violations, not enough personnel to enforce the ban and noncompliance. “It’s just a nightmare to enforce,” he said.
Some cities have tried creative ways to encourage compliance. “St. Peters one year tried to put up some signs to remind people about the ordinance,” DiGiuseppi said. “They said half the signs got stolen.”
Wentzville, St. Charles and Cottleville allow a time frame around July 4 for fireworks to be shot off. St. Charles still get complaints about fireworks and can’t enforce the ban at other times, he said.
DiGiuseppi said he received some positive feedback from Wentzville and Cottleville police. Wentzville said they had fewer calls and didn’t write as many summons. “It helped the police department but that isn’t necessarily helping the community,” DiGiuseppi said.
Cottleville allows a longer time for residents to shot off fireworks. But DiGiuseppi said, “They have a lot of fireworks being shot off.” He said legalizing fireworks, even for a short period of time, may be a “no-win situation” that may get worse because more fireworks could be shot off.
Both the board and Mayor Kathy Schweikert agreed with the idea of forming an exploratory committee. Complaints about fireworks remain high and if calls don’t go to the police, they often go to elected officials, Schweikert said.
“If they don’t call you, they call us,” said Alderman John Pellerito [Ward 3]. Pellerito said residents should call the police to get their complaints on the record.
DiGiuseppi agreed with residents who have told him that around July 4 it’s “a war zone out there” and fireworks are hazardous and a public safety issue. But police have to be realistic with enforcement because residents are going to use them. Some residents strongly support fireworks, saying they are patriotic.
Regulation can be harder than a ban, DiGiuseppi said. He noted that St. Charles County officials, at one time, put into effect regulations for the unincorporated area allowing fireworks to be shot off accept anything that “has a fin or a stick.”
“Now try to enforce that,” DiGiuseppi said. “I don’t know what you would do; seize that burnt stick that falls out of the sky as evidence. It seems to be a nightmare.”