LINCOLN CITY — Despite efforts by the Lincoln City Police Department and the city, illegal use of fireworks on the Fourth of July and other violations continue to be a source of frustration for many Lincoln City residents.
Police Chief Jerry Palmer addressed the Lincoln City City Council during its regular meeting Monday evening to ask what direction the council would like the department to go in regarding fireworks enforcement in the future.
Palmer said the department’s main concern is making it through the Fourth of July weekend with as few injuries and accidents as possible, but added he wasn’t blind to the issues many residents face every year and wanted to do what he could to combat issues such as fireworks being set off on the beach or in residential areas.
During discussion, the council presented several ideas to Palmer, who promised to evaluate them and bring them back for further consideration at a later time. Ideas that got the most focus included obtaining additional ATVs for the department to increase patrol coverage on the beach, hiring private security to help cover certain areas and focusing on the most problematic areas like Roads End.
Palmer also asked the council to help come up with a good measurement of success for enforcement, such as basing it off contacts made or citations given.
At the start of the meeting, Palmer briefed the council on the department’s current efforts, saying it deploys every available resource on the Fourth of July and does its best to patrol the seven miles of beach and 39 access points in Lincoln City. But the department can only do so much with the officers it can muster for the event.
“Every available officer is deployed throughout the city to assist in complaints as well as all the other calls for police services,” Palmer said. “In 2020, we deployed 33 people for the Fourth of July event, which I consider starts at noon and goes through midnight on the Fourth of July.”
Of those 33 officers, Palmer said 28 are actively out patrolling the beach. Some officers are also on loan from Toledo in exchange for Lincoln City’s help with their own events later in the year.
Many officers, either on foot or using one of the department’s three ATVs, patrol the beach in Lincoln City during the holiday. Using fireworks on the beach is illegal statewide, so it’s one of the largest areas with violations. That said, Palmer added a major concern for him was residential areas, as illegal firework use there can represent a bigger fire danger.
“There’s no way we can cover all that ground with 33 officers,” Palmer said. “And another thing to remember is we only deploy these 33 staff from noon to midnight, and all around that time we have regular staff. An average shift right now is a sergeant and three patrols.”
One solution Palmer proposed was hiring private security to monitor beach access, but he estimated local security contractors could muster up around five people, and they would have limited authority other than being a physical presence. Palmer also said asking county or state police for support likely wouldn’t be an option as they, too, are understaffed.
In terms of enforcement, as long as violators are cooperative, officers generally issue warnings, confiscate fireworks and move on in order to increase coverage. Stopping to conduct a more thorough investigation or to arrest anyone would be too time consuming, Palmer said.
The largest disruption to these efforts, however, is the need for officers to take the department’s regular calls in addition to the extra patrols. Palmer said the department generally gets 40 to 60 calls for service every 24-hour period, which has been increasing yearly. Daily calls have been increasing over the last two years, with Palmer noting a 47 percent increase for January 2020 and another 47 percent increase on top of that for January 2021.
“Even if the call is minimal, the time it takes to drive to the scene and the fact it ties up two officers to provide cover, it averages about 20 minutes per call, and that’s if it doesn’t turn into a custody arrest or a serious investigation,” Palmer said.
A major incident can also completely throw off the department’s Fourth of July coverage, with Palmer citing last year’s near riot at Spanish Head, where the department confronted nine hostile men and had to arrest seven. The incident forced the department to pull all but four officers away from Fourth of July duties and proved to be an all-day affair, going past midnight. Something like a major car wreck could have similar effects.
At the previous council’s request, the department attempted to escalate the amount of citations issued last year, but given the circumstances only issued nine.
Another major difficulty is simply the nature of the holiday itself, with firework use ramping up as it gets darker, making it harder to identify which individuals are the ones making violations.
Palmer noted the department has also been working with Explore Lincoln City in an attempt to create flyers outlining the rules and distributing them to hotels and vacation rental companies. Councilor Riley Hoagland later noted that awareness would only do so much good as violators in this situation are often fully aware they are breaking the law and simply do not care.
Palmer concluded by saying his current plan was to try and issue more citations, noting that making arrests would slow down officers too much, and he couldn’t do much else without additional resources.
After Palmer’s presentation, council members pitched ideas on how to help the department, as well as suggestions on where it might shift its focus.
Hoagland said visibility and maximizing the department’s presence would likely be the best solution and suggested purchasing more ATVs for the department so officers could cover more ground. He said it would increase coverage and take some of the strain off officers patrolling the beach with their equipment. Palmer said each ATV purchased would cost from $15,000 to $18,000, but there was potential for the vehicles to be shared by multiple city departments.
Councilor Diana Hinton said focusing on more problematic areas like Roads End and cracking down by issuing more citations and warnings might be a better solution to show people the city is serious about the issue. Hinton also suggested using floodlights in problematic areas to simply take the fun out of setting off fireworks.
Hoagland strongly opposed singling out any specific location and advocated for more comprehensive solutions.
“I am absolutely, vehemently opposed to just putting more and more troops in Roads End,” Hoagland said. “We do not have Roads End Firework Police, we have Lincoln City Police. I will not be in support to putting more people in Roads End just to see if it works. Everyone here in town has the same desire to be free and not have their dogs freaking out no matter where they are.”
Councilor Mitch Parsons said whatever the city does, it needs to be careful about where it might be driving Fourth of July traffic. Parsons said if too much focus is put on the beach, it might drive people back to their vacation rentals, where they’ll light fireworks off in those areas instead.
Parsons also brought up concerns that the city might be putting too much effort into enforcing laws on the beach, a state property where their efforts aren’t being support with state funds or personnel.
Councilor Rick Mark said the bigger picture might be to find a way to change the culture regarding the event, rather than try to curb or stop it altogether.
“We’re looking to change the culture, to make it so Lincoln City isn’t looked at as a place you can go to get away with this,” Mark said.
Some council members suggested putting more of the onus on vacation rentals and other lodging services by requiring more direct notification to visitors about illegal firework use.