JOLIET – When it comes to cracking down on illegal fireworks, Councilman Bob O’Dekirk is ... well ... a real firecracker.
“I’ve been inundated with complaints about fireworks in our city,” O’Dekirk told the Joliet City Council on Tuesday. “I think we’re at a tipping point where we proactively need to take law enforcement measures regarding fireworks.”
This year the Joliet Police Department responded to 127 service calls involving fireworks between 2 p.m. July 4 and 3 a.m. July 5. The number of incidents is down from the previous year, when 150 incidents were recorded. But it’s up from the 75 or so calls a year that was typical during the recession years when people probably were just not spending as much on home fireworks.
“I don’t think the problem is kids with bottle rockets or firecrackers,” O’Dekirk said. “You have high-grade explosives that are going off in neighborhoods, and going off at really unacceptable hours, like 1 or 2 in the morning. And not only on the Fourth, but on the days leading up to and after it.
“I would like to see an ordinance with some real teeth in and fines levied,” O’Dekirk said. “I’d like to see jail time.”
You’ve been warned
Police Chief Brian Benton said his department took a proactive approach this year on the fireworks issue.
“We sent out officers to some of the addresses where we had problems last year, and we did basically a warning ahead of time,” Benton said. “We told them we realize we can’t arrest everybody, but because we’ve had a history of problems at your house, we will be arresting you.”
Benton noted that one resident already had set up tubes in his backyard to launch rockets. After meeting with police, the homeowner said he would dismantle the setup and take his fireworks to his cousin’s house in Indiana, where fireworks are legal.
Illinois is one of four states – others are Iowa, Ohio and Vermont – that allows only sparklers and novelty items, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Massachusetts ban all commercial fireworks. The other 42 states allow some or all types of fireworks permitted by federal regulation.
State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, is drafting legislation to legalize the sale and purchase of fireworks in Illinois. It’s believed the measure could generate $3 million to $12 million a year in retail sales tax revenue from fireworks sales. A bill legalizing firework sales could be introduced into the legislature next spring.
Benton said part of the problem is that society appears to perceive fireworks as more acceptable than it did in the past.
“I think it shows a level of acceptance within our community that we are not all happy with,” Benton said.
Sending a message
O’Dekirk, a former police officer, said cracking down would send a message that illegal fireworks would no longer be tolerated in the city. He noted that when he was an officer, arrests for fireworks violations were rare.
O’Dekirk pointed to the success of DUI roadblocks on New Year’s Eve and other holidays to deal with drunken driving.
O’Dekirk said he’d like to see fireworks offenders treated in a similar fashion.
“They know it’s illegal. Yet they show no regard for the people around them with kids or pets or who have to work the next morning,” O’Dekirk said. “People are tired of it and I don’t blame them. It’s unacceptable.”
City Attorney Jeff Plyman said Joliet’s fireworks ordinance, which has mirrored state statute since 2008, already is very tough.
“Illinois is a very restrictive state. You can barely burn a match here legally,” Plyman said. “What the state prohibits, the city prohibits, so the ordinance is there.”
And while the state constitution prohibits cities from creating jailable offenses for an ordinance, the city could create an additional criminal misdemeanor to give police another enforcement alternative, Plyman said.
The city’s current ordinance gives police several options, Plyman said, including issuing a compliance ticket with a fine up to $150, making a physical arrest, or treating an incident as a state criminal offense, with a fine up to $750.