A quieter but still busy July 4 for police under Bellingham's fireworks ban

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 5, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - The police didn't know what to expect on the first Fourth of July under the city's fireworks ban.

A steady beat of booms and pops filled the air above the homes in the Roosevelt, Alabama Hill and Barkley neighborhoods, where Officer Rich Holdridge patrolled Friday night, July 4.

Still, Holdridge and some residents in that part of Bellingham said this year's Independence Day was much quieter than previous years. Holdridge went so far as to say it was "90 percent different" than last year.

"From last year at this time, you would think you were in a war zone," Holdridge said. This year, he said, "I thought it would have gone off as usual, but I'm somewhat shocked."

After dark, sometime after 10 p.m., the metallic odor of fireworks smoke came into the patrol car through Holdridge's open window as he drove up Alabama Street responding to a fireworks complaint on Hillard Drive, a short dead-end street tucked into the backside of the hill.

When Holdridge and a second officer arrived in the quiet neighborhood, they pulled up across from each other and shrugged.

"Nothing specific in the area," the second officer said, his tone suggesting the futility of trying to catch up with violators of the new city law.

The City Council voted last year to ban the sale, possession and use of personal fireworks - everything from sparklers to multicolored fountains. Those caught violating the ban could be fined $250 to $1,000. Any illegal fireworks could be seized.

The rumor around town was that police wouldn't issue citations this year but would only "educate" violators about the new law.

Not so, said Lt. Bob Vander Yacht.

"Officers have discretion as to whether issuing a notice of infraction is merited," Vander Yacht said in an email. "Fireworks cannot be prioritized over criminal matters."

Holdridge spent the first four hours of his night shift chasing down fireworks complaints and coming up empty. He was responding to 911 calls about fireworks in the city, not to the explosions going on above his head.

Just after 11 p.m., Holdridge took another fireworks complaint, meeting Sgt. Don Almer near the corner of Texas and Valencia streets. Again, they were too late.

Over the past week, response times to fireworks calls had been roughly 20 to 40 minutes, Almer said. Except for a contingent assigned Friday to fireworks and party patrol, officers such as Holdridge had to prioritize the usual thefts and mental-health cases.

Holdridge's first two calls, before dark, were a 911 hang-up (the man was trying to order a pizza) and a man who shoplifted chocolate milk from the Meridian Street Haggen. The shoplifter was trespassed from all Haggen stores and then let go.

At 11:16 p.m., police received a call from the 2000 block of Division Street of a mental-health patient leaving a care center without his shoes. A few minutes later, Holdridge spotted a 40-year-old man walking up the hill in his socks, on Hannegan Road.

Holdridge turned on his lights and stopped in the middle of the road, halting traffic. The man approached Holdridge's car and said quietly, almost as if to himself, "I needed to get away from there."

Holdridge drove the man to St Joseph's hospital, where he would spend the night. The man, diagnosed with schizophrenia, wasn't responding well to new medication and was suffering visual and auditory hallucinations.

After completing paperwork, Holdridge was back on the road at 12:11 a.m. The city was already much quieter than it had been an hour earlier.

Holdridge acknowledged some residents might not be satisfied with the police department's response to violations of the fireworks ban. Even with 18 officers on duty, they couldn't stop the hundreds of Bellingham residents who chose to flout the ban.

"Unfortunately, we just don't have the resources to deal with the problem," Holdridge said.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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