Every Fourth of July season, Viki Anderson’s household goes on full alert.
Drug the dog. Close the windows. Turn up the TV.
But this year, nothing seems to work for the Omaha family.
The illegal use of fireworks, based on complaints to Omaha police and Mayor Jean Stothert’s hot line, has risen significantly.
Stressed-out dogs, people unable to sleep and veterans rattled by PTSD have been the result, along with divisive arguments among neighbors.
“We cannot really leave the house,” Anderson said. “I cannot take (my dog) for a walk, even during the day.”
Deputy Omaha Police Chief Scott Gray says Omaha police received 1,044 complaints in June compared to 648 during the same period in 2019. That’s an increase of 61%.
Calls to the Omaha Mayor’s Hotline more than doubled this June. This year, the hot line received 112 complaints compared to 43 in June 2019.
Lincoln police saw a 150% increase in complaints in June compared to 2019. The actual number in Lincoln last month was much lower than in Omaha, 295.
The two cities aren’t alone: Complaints are up across the country, from Los Angeles to New York. (Council Bluffs has seen no large jump in complaints, with 214 this June compared to 207 a year ago.)
Fireworks become legal to shoot off in Omaha and Council Bluffs on Thursday, and in Lincoln on Friday. In Bellevue, Ralston, Gretna and Papillion, people have legally been able to shoot them off for a week, and in La Vista since Sunday.
Theories abound on why calls are up: People have been cooped up, so shooting off fireworks is a way to blow off steam; more people are at home to hear them; some families may have more money since vacations and trips to the mall and theater have been curtailed, or pandemic unemployment checks have brought in greater income; and with major displays canceled, beefed-up backyard exhibitions are an alternative.
Fireworks vendors in Omaha reported sales were brisker than usual on their first day, Sunday, similar to increased spending on other things to use outdoors, like bicycles, backyard pools and kayaks.
And the illegal use of fireworks mirrors an increase in some other illegal activity, such as excessive speeding and the firing of guns.
The problem this year, Omaha residents say, is that the fireworks started earlier, have been more powerful and are going off more frequently.
“This has been the worst year in 30 years I’ve lived in this area, and it’s already been going on for a month,” said Jon Blair, who lives in North Omaha. “I don’t mind normal fireworks before 10 p.m., but some of it sounds like bombs exploding, and they rattle the windows.”
Gray said complaints from police have come from all corners of the city, with the highest concentration east of 72nd Street and north of Center Street.
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Translating complaints into citations is difficult, and that’s frustrating for Omaha residents. Despite receiving more than 1,000 complaints, Omaha police had issued only five citations as of Wednesday.
The reasons for the gap are varied, Gray said. For most of June, fireworks complaints had to compete with other police calls — in other words, they were a lower priority. And by the time officers got to a complaint, the person firing them off was most likely gone. It was only Sunday that the department began dispatching complaints immediately to officers assigned solely to fireworks complaints. With this targeted enforcement, Gray said, citations are rising.
But there’s another difficulty: Officers have to see a person illegally lighting a fireworks device to give a citation.
How can residents help police? Timely calls, precise addresses and video evidence, police say.
If residents have problems with a neighbor, Gray advises waiting until the person isn’t lighting fireworks to talk with them. If the problem is persistent, he said to contact your precinct and request mediation.
In 2015, a Sarpy County man was beaten unconscious when he confronted a neighbor about fireworks. His assailant was given probation.
Omahan Eli Hassler learned the hard way that asking a neighbor to stop shooting off fireworks illegally can end badly. The conversation this week nearly came to blows, he said.
“The fireworks make our existence even more tense than it has to be, especially now with COVID-19 and recent protests,” he said.
Not everyone is upset.
“With the world we live in today, there are way worse things to complain about,” said Omaha resident Misti Miller.
Penny Bless said she’s no fan of the loud illegal explosions, but she’d like to see Omaha lengthen its fireworks season.
“They’re a joy that every child should experience,” she said. “Some of these people are too old, or they’re overreacting. We should celebrate our country. ... It’s a tribute to our freedom.”
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