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Illegal fireworks spark debate

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Posted on: August 4, 2020

By Zamir Courtney and Kit Slack


“The night before last, someone set off a rocket (super loud), and a few seconds later we could hear the pieces of debris hitting our aluminum awning as we sat outside,” wrote Alexi, who asked that only his first name be used for this article. “I had to check nothing was burning on my asphalt roof,” he added in a July 2 message to the H.O.P.E. (Hyattsville Organization for a Positive Environment) email group. “That’s when it’s not so festive.”


In Hyattsville, residents have been hearing nightly fireworks since June. Some people are losing sleep and are tired of comforting scared children and pets. Others enjoy the celebrations.

Spent fireworks found on the street in Hyattsville July 2: Unknown revelers lit them and drove away.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Anonymous

One single mother, an essential worker who asked to remain anonymous, said she has been stocking up on fireworks since finding a good deal on a trip to the beach in the spring. She made two more trips to Pennsylvania to get ready for a Fourth of July get-together with one other family. She warned her neighbors about the show she was going to put on in the alley behind her house, put tarps on their cars and kept her pets inside.   


Complaints on the H.O.P.E. email group first made her realize that setting off fireworks was illegal. At first she was scared, she said. As the complaints kept coming, she became irritated by the lack of understanding of people’s need to celebrate. She went through with her party — and launched more fireworks on several other nights, as well.


“Every night it seems to be later and later with more and more participants,” wrote Sharon O’Donnell on July 6 to the H.O.P.E group. I literally call the police — every night. I feel so bad for our new neighbors with young children, whose bedroom window … must feel the full impact. I know my dog does. … Can someone tell me why I don’t see any community policing?”


“The vast majority of complaints lead to no action,” according to a July 16 email from Acting Lt. Zachary Nemser of the Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD), because when officers arrive, fireworks and those who set them off are gone. “In the few cases where the perpetrators remain on scene,” he said, officers confiscate fireworks and sometimes issue nuisance warnings. 


“We have not made any arrests or issued any fines for fireworks this year,” wrote Nemser.  


He also said that his department understands that the cancellation of public fireworks and noted that the Fourth of July, being “the first major holiday since the County entered Phase II of the reopening plan … fed the exponential increase.”  


Fireworks are “the new pandemic national pastime,” according to Bloomberg, one which pits reformers of urban policing against the equally powerful phenomenon of urban complaining.”  New York has had a 40,000% increase in fireworks complaints, according to Bloomberg, catching up to Washington D.C., which has a long tradition of illegal fireworks.  The District saw a fivefold increase in complaints this summer, according to The Washington Post.


Residents in D.C. and Montgomery County have been posting flyers that provide alternatives to calling the police, including contacting conflict resolution centers, crisis hotlines, and services that offer counselors and practical assistance to crime victims. “We should have the same for Prince George’s County, or barring that for Hyattsville,” Ruthanna Emrys wrote to the H.O.P.E. email group on July 7. “Where there are gaps, … we should be working to fill them.”


Hyattsville resident Maurie Kathan said she was disappointed in neighbors calling the police.  “We need to figure out how we can address issues as a neighborhood without bringing in law enforcement,” she said.


Not all residents agree. Hyattsville resident Nina Faye wrote in a July 6 email to HCPD Chief Amal Awad and others that she believes that Hyattsville residents pay to have a city police department in order to have “local control and oversight over our superior officers. Their function is to take care of dangerous situations — personal injury, property damage, fire.” Faye believes that, when it comes to municipal code violations, talking to neighbors before calling the city is the right approach. “Explosives and gunfire strike me as a totally different matter,” she explained.


Some residents, including Michael Gorman, enjoyed this year’s festivities. “The abundance of do-it-yourself fireworks contributed to an energetic and friendly vibe on my street, and I have to confess that I’d be quite happy if it happened that way every year,” he said. Gorman sympathized with those startled awake in the small hours, however, saying he would prefer fireworks for just one night, rather than for a month.


According to the state fire marshal’s office, fireworks are illegal in Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties without a permit. Permit applications carry a $150 filing fee and applicants must take an exam.


Zamir Courtney is a summer intern with the Hyattsville Life & Times.



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