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Lathrop effort targets Illegal fireworks use

Last year the City of Lathrop imposed stricter penalties and a new policy that allows police officers and firefighters to issue citations to property owners where illegal fireworks are being shot from.

But while the new push was supposed to give the city and its public servants more teeth to stem a rising problem – allowing the City Attorney to prosecute the cases and putting a stop to the end of the “cat and mouse” game of actually having to witness somebody break the law – Lathrop Manteca Fire District Chief Gene Neely learned firsthand how widespread the problem was when people he was attempting to cite in his own neighborhood for breaking the law started throwing lit fireworks at his district vehicle, forcing him to call for backup.

Now, through an agreement between the fire district and Lathrop Police Services, aggressive enforcement is being planned for the lead-up to Fourth of July as cities throughout San Joaquin County crack down on illegal fireworks and work to prevent the injuries and fires that they cause.

“I think that it’s going to be more effective working side-by-side with law enforcement to get a handle on the problems,” said Neely, whose radio call to dispatch calling for backup was caught by a local scanner enthusiast and disseminated on social media. “I think it’s going to send the message that these activities won’t be tolerated, and anybody caught doing it will be cited.”

Last year the Lathrop City Council changed its policy to allow City Attorney Salvador Navarrete to prosecute the cases rather than refer them up to the San Joaquin County District Attorney for prosecution after years of those cases being dismissed.

Ironically, just after the council approved those changes to help stem what has been a growing issue in the community for a number of years, San Joaquin District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar announced the formation of a special task force – comprised of representatives of every police and fire department in the county – and pledged to take a hard-line stance against the cases that made it across her desk.

Neely said that his department has been working with the organizers of that task force, which agreed to prosecute traffickers of illegal fireworks to the fullest extent of the law, and noted that be believes that the interagency cooperation will be a way of making inroads into the problem.

And the problem has had real-life consequences for Lathrop residents in the past few years. Last year a young man was injured when he attempted to modify a “safe-and-sane” firework and had it blow up in his hand, and fire officials have attributed a number of grass fires and even residential structure fires to aerial fireworks that end up landing in dry brush or on rooftops – creating the potential for serious injuries or even death given the circumstances.

Neely’s fateful exchange with a known fireworks offender, which came on the night of July 4th, even led him last year to consider pushing to outlaw all fireworks for the foreseeable future, but he has soften that position noting that most people that buy them from approved vendors use them lawfully and legally and therefore pose no threat to the general public.

Those that shoot them into the air, however, are a different story.

“This is going to be more people teaming up together and doing everything that we can to confisgate these and turn them over to the State Fire Marshal for proper disposal,” Neely said. “Last year I think we got between 25 and 50 pounds of fireworks because most of the time when we responded, they had already been used.

“But this year we’re going to have more people out actively enforcing the ordinances that we have – we don’t have to call the police ourselves to issue citations anymore, and we’ll have the backup necessary to tackle this issue.

“Hopefully that’s enough to make a change.”

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544