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Date of Issue: July 16, 2008

Quiet 4th but police busy with confiscation, peace-keeping

Holmes Beach police officers confiscated several thousand dollars worth of illegal fireworks July 4, including those shown above. Law enforcment in Anna Maria seized about $5,000 worth of illegal fireworks, while Bradenton Beach police also confiscated a large amount of banned fireworks. Islander Photo: Courtesy Holmes Beach Chief Jay Romine

The plan put forth by the Island Fireworks Task Force to confiscate illegal fireworks during the July 4 weekend was apparently successful, as law enforcement in all three Island cities report the weekend was a lot quieter than in years past.

While only a few people were arrested, police were kept busy during the three-day weekend dealing with illegal fireworks displays and drunks, often both at the same time, and a belligerent attitude from those who had fireworks confiscated. Most of the police activity took place the evening of July 4, when an estimated 10,000 people gathered on the Island, despite the absence of any planned fireworks display.


Anna Maria

“We confiscated about $5,000 to $6,000 worth of illegal fireworks,” said Sgt. John Kenney of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Anna Maria substation, “but we didn’t make any arrests. We were able to handle any situation before it got out of hand.”

Confiscation was the IFTF policy for the weekend and arresting an individual for illegal fireworks activity was deemed a “measure of last resort.” The only arrests reported during the holiday were in Bradenton Beach, and none were for illegal fireworks.

“We shut down a bunch of displays, and most of the people we confronted were from out-of-town and said they didn’t know about the ordinance,” Kenney said.

But deputies couldn’t be everywhere. Kenney said he and the five other deputies on duty July 4 dealt with complaints about illegal fireworks continually from sundown until around 1 a.m.

In an incident on Oak Avenue, deputies confiscated about $1,000 worth of illegal fireworks that were ready to be shot up into the sky in a pre-arranged display.

 Deputies also seized a foam raft floating in the Gulf of Mexico that contained a large amount of fireworks. The people involved were “a bit upset,” said Kenney, because they had spent a lot of money on the fireworks.

Many people who had their fireworks confiscated had also been drinking, he added, and “alcohol and fireworks don’t mix.” That was apparent in the belligerent attitude many people, particularly out-of-towners, had toward deputies when confronted, Kenney observed.

Three men who identified themselves as lawyers from South Carolina complained that police were taking away their constitutional rights by confiscating their fireworks. Kenney said he informed the men that deputies were just enforcing the law and that they, as officers of the court, should understand the enforcement issue. He said he also suggested that they could return to South Carolina if they wanted to shoot off illegal fireworks.

Considering that there were still thousands of people on the Island July 4, even though the Sandbar Restaurant dropped its annual July 4 fireworks show this year, Anna Maria was “a whole lot quieter than in years past,” Kenney said.

“It was a strange night. There wasn’t much complaint from the local residents,” he said, although one person complained about a group of fire dancers on the beach.

It was an organized event and about 1,000 people were watching some Hawaiian dancers perform, Kenney said.

There were no fireworks in the show and Kenney said that “discretion was the better part of valor” in this instance. “If we’d tried to break that up, we would have had a riot. The event was very well organized and controlled.”

  Overall, this July 4 holiday was “like night and day from last year to this year,” observed Kenney.

There were no arrests or injuries in Anna Maria this year and the entire evening was active but “manageable,” he said.


Holmes Beach

In Holmes Beach, where three officers were on duty the evening of July 4, HBPD chief Jay Romine said officers confiscated enough illegal fireworks to fill four large boxes.

“We had less fireworks shot off than normal, but there were still a lot. We tried to handle it as best we could, but we were pretty busy. We ran from one incident to another. We were never going to get them all. Some people were belligerent, but you expect that,” he said.

As in Anna Maria, a majority of the complainers were from out of town and had been drinking. Echoing Kenney, Romine said that “mixing fireworks and alcohol is always dangerous.”

Most people facing confiscation of their fireworks claimed ignorance of the law, although some said they “just figured they could get away with it,” Romine said.

No arrests were made, despite the “belligerent attitude” from a lot of people who had fireworks confiscated. “We survived another year and nobody got hurt. I consider that a success,” he concluded.


Bradenton Beach

Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale, whose officers cover Coquina Beach along with their city beaches and streets, said he had all officers, part-time and reserve, present, with a few working security at a private affair.

“Coquina Beach was not as crowded as in past years,” the chief observed and fireworks activity at other beach locations was quite a bit less than last year.

 Officers did make several arrests July 4, but none were for illegal fireworks and only one arrest was for public intoxication.

Although many people who had fireworks confiscated were confrontational, Speciale said officers were able to deal with the situation without any escalation.

“A lot of people were pretty irate. The biggest complaint they had was that the people selling the fireworks didn’t tell them they were illegal in Manatee County. Most of the people we confiscated from were from out of town or out of state. Some people asked us what they could or could not shoot off, and many just packed up and went into town,” the chief said.

Overall, this was probably the quietest July 4 he’s witnessed. “I’ve been out here 20 years and we weren’t even half as busy as in years past.

 “This was definitely a success. I think information to the public prior to July 4 about the confiscation policy helped,” he said. The main function of the task force - to keep the public safe and prevent injuries - was achieved.”

But not everyone thought the task force was a success.

Ed Green of Georgia said he drove 500 miles to bring his family to the Island to set off $300 worth of fireworks only to have them taken away by police.

“They could have told us before we got here. We’ve been coming every year,” said Green. “They really spoiled our vacation.”

Some Anna Maria residents complained about the cancellation of the traditional fireworks show at the Sandbar Restaurant.

 “This stinks,” the woman said.

The Island Fireworks Task Force was formed last year by Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford following a serious injury on July 4 in that city. A man sitting on the beach was injured after someone randomly threw a cherry bomb that exploded on his hand.

In their attempt to reach the injured man, emergency medical personnel spent more than an hour in traffic due to the inordinate number of vehicles on Island streets and roads.

Public officials have previously estimated that more than 15,000 people - perhaps as many as 20,000 - are on the Island the evening of July 4, a situation that law enforcement officers, fire department officials and emergency medical teams had deemed “unmanageable” for public safety. Many people were setting off personal fireworks, including many expensive displays.

This past July 4, police estimated less than 10,000 were on Island beaches.

Manatee County has an ordinance that prohibits the discharge of exploding fireworks without a permit.

Barford said the task force accomplished its goals for this year. “It was a safe holiday for residents and visitors. Nobody got injured and we kept people and their property safe.”

The mayor noted that the task force is not a permanent body and will meet July 29 to determine any course of action for next year, if in fact it should even continue. The task force goals of educating the public and confiscating illegal fireworks were met this year, she said.

Good news for Island residents is that the task force is going to “look at a special event permit for the Sandbar (for a fireworks show) for next year. That’s something that people really enjoy,” Barford said.