The Fourth of July in Lawrence: As they have for decades, city residents celebrated the holiday by shooting off all manner of Roman candles, cherry bombs, bottle rockets and fiery fountains.
Most of those fireworks are illegal in Lawrence.
Police responded to more than 100 calls Thursday night about the booms, whistles and bright lights that rattled and illuminated the city’s neighborhoods.
They wrote one ticket.
More than 10 years after city commissioners enacted a sweeping ban on most forms of fireworks within city limits, Lawrence residents continue to put flame to fuse in celebration U.S. independence, with some seeming to believe that fireworks are legal, or at least tolerated, in certain areas of the city.
For some residents, it’s fun. For others, it’s noisy and dangerous.
But police and city officials say that with fireworks so closely linked with the Fourth of July, it’s all but impossible to enforce the city’s pyrotechnic prohibition.
'We always follow the rules'
Roman Hernandez, of Lawrence, was with about eight family members shooting off small fireworks on the levee just across the Kansas River from downtown Lawrence. The family has been doing the same each Independence Day for about five years, and Hernandez said police had not come to talk to him about it. He said he thought that was because fireworks were tolerated on the levee.
“We know in this space we can do it,” Hernandez said. “We always follow the rules for the places we can do it.”
In fact, fireworks are prohibited throughout the city limits of Lawrence, with the exceptions of supervised public displays and novelty items such as sparklers and party poppers. The 2002 city ordinance also allow use of fireworks by military and railroad officials in the performance of their duties.
Violating the fireworks ordinance is punishable by a fine of up to $200 on the first offense, while each subsequent violation could trigger a similar fine plus up to six months in jail.
The ban was imposed following the lead of other urban communities and neighbors in Johnson County, said City Manager David Corliss. The city had a real concern about fire safety, the security of homeowners, and fireworks-related injuries.
For years, fireworks had been permitted during selected hours, July 2-4, until city officials took up the issue of a complete ban in 2002. The year before, fireworks had been blamed for an apartment fire at 501 Colorado St. that displaced 17 residents and caused about $400,000 in damage.
City officials realized from the beginning that enforcement of the ordinance would very difficult. But many, such as then-city commissioner David Dunfield, also thought the ban was inevitable.
“As the city continues to grow, the problems are going to escalate,” he said then. “We’re going to hear about this year after year until something dramatic changes.”
Fireworks on the Fourth
More than a decade later, little seems to have changed.
Last Fourth of July, police responded to 70 calls about fireworks. This year, they there were 102 calls between the evening and midnight patrol shifts, after officers had taken many more during the day. About a dozen officers were on duty Thursday night, said Kim Murphree, a Lawrence Police Department spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, the bottle rockets kept rocketing and the mortar shells kept bursting, from Eighth and New York streets to Clinton Parkway and Kasold and all points between. Fortunately, no fires or serious injuries related to fireworks were reported, according to officials at Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical and Lawrence Memorial Hospital. The Douglas County Sheriff's Office took no reports of serious incidents in the county, either.
City officials today say they have to strike a balance between public safety and the cost of enforcement in a community where it’s clear that many residents disagree with the fireworks ban and aren’t honoring it.
“It is a challenge, especially from the law enforcement side,” Corliss said. “We do issue citations. But we also know that when we get a call of an accident and a call of a fireworks violation, we’re going to respond first to the accident call.” Apart from the many, many calls about fireworks, Corliss said, some officers were stationed downtown for the Independence Day festivities there.
Other officers were doing what they do every night: responding to burglaries, drug offenses, and domestic disputes.
On Delaware Street Thursday night, residents said several police had driven by, without stopping, a home where a group of people were setting off very large fireworks.
'I don't think there should be a ban.'
Some of the neighbors were fine with that. One man, who asked that his name not be used, brought his wife and two children, ages seven and eight, to a home near Delaware Street and Forrest Avenue to avoid the attention of police. “I don’t think there should be a ban,” he said. “It’s because [of] people who didn’t clean up and it’s certainly put a salty taste in my mouth.”
The family had been warned by police after setting off some small fireworks in their own driveway on a nearby busy street, the man said, but hadn’t been bothered since relocating to Forrest Avenue.
“We did some smoke bombs and fountains; typical things that by all means should be allowed. At most, there was a fountain with an aerial,” he said. “When it comes down to it and they confiscate our fireworks or give us a ticket, so be it. We take care of our property, we clean up after ourselves, we should be able to have a few fireworks in our front yard.”
Details on the single ticket issued Thursday night weren't immediately available from the police department.
Even if reality hasn’t caught up to theory in the city’s total ban of fireworks, Corliss said the policy has done some good. Fully enforcing it, he said, would mean more resources, including more police officers and a discussion with the county government about a stopping the sale of fireworks near the city limits.
For now, Corliss said, it doesn’t seem as if residents want to pay the money to take more of those fireworks out of the sky.
“It is basically the compromise that the community has ended up with that doesn’t make anyone very happy,” Corliss said. “But I don’t know of a better, cheaper solution.”