Bay Area police agencies step up search for illegal fireworks

NEWARK, Calif. (KTVU) -- As the Independence Day holiday winds down, several Bay Area law enforcement agencies have stepped up their efforts to combat illegal fireworks.

The Newark Police Department is one of those agencies, dedicating at least eight officers whose sole mission was to crack down on illegal fireworks, part of a special fireworks suppression unit set up within the department.

"It’s very dangerous," said Newark police Chief Mike Carroll. "There's a lot of kids out. There will be a lot of smoke. Visibility gets bad at night. Slow down."

KTVU was with Newark officers and Alameda County Fire Department inspectors as they were briefed and when they went out on patrol.

"Right now we are just patrolling the street (and) if we hear a loud boom, which you hear every few minutes, we start heading over there to see if we could catch people,” said Newark police Capt. Chomnan Loth.

Newark is one of a few Bay Area cities that allow so-called "safe and sane" fireworks. Some shopping centers allow people to set off fireworks on the centers' property, which puts law enforcement in a unique bind.

"You have the people that hide among the people that are setting off legal fireworks so it's difficult for us to catch because there are a lot of people in the crowd,” Loth said.

"Here we have some illegal dangerous fireworks they are aerial propulsions," said Officer Blair Slavazza. "It's pretty dangerous so we seized them."

Within five minutes of the ride-along, officers confiscated several hundred dollars' worth of aerial fireworks, considered the most dangerous since they can easily set homes on fire.

Newark officers cited a 55-year-old man, who was already on probation. They also found a gram of methamphetamine on him, police said.

"We knew this person was on probation and usually has stuff he’s not supposed to have” said Newark Officer Blair Slavazza said. "We asked him, 'Hey man do you have any illegal fireworks?' He's pretty honest and he said 'yes.'"

In Newark, penalties are steep.

Violators could be cited with a misdemeanor and face a fine of up to $1,000 along with a year in jail. Police said the extra enforcement is necessary, since every year at least one person gets seriously injured.

"If we could prevent someone from getting hurt, just one person or prevent one house from burning down then for us it's worth the effort," Loth said.

The city of Newark has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to fireworks. Police said they expected to issue several dozen citations Tuesday night while also confiscating a small truckload of illegal fireworks.

By KTVU reporter Azenith Smith.