On Tuesday morning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would be forming an illegal fireworks task force, which will involve over 40 law enforcement officers conducting undercover buys and sting operations that target people selling fireworks in the city.
The task force will consist of “10 officers from NYPD Intelligence Bureau, 12 FDNY Fire Marshals and 20 members of the Sheriff’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation,” according to a press release. De Blasio said in the press conference that the task force would operate both in and outside of the city and target “suppliers, distributors and possessors.”
“This is not just a quality of life problem and a noise problem — and it's certainly that, and in all five boroughs, we take that seriously— but it can also be dangerous,” de Blasio said. “We’re going to start a huge sting operation to go and get these illegal fireworks at the base. Meaning, everywhere they’re being sold around New York City, and even where they’re being sold in surrounding states that we know of flowing into New York.”
The press release also said that the FDNY would launch “a public safety campaign” to “illustrate the dangers of illegal fireworks.”
“We need to make sure that young people know, all people know — some of it’s adults too — that illegal fireworks are not only illegal, but they can be dangerous,” de Blasio said. “We need to get that message across, and that’s what we intend to do.”
Although fireworks are a typical part of Brooklyn summers, there has been a spike in reports of fireworks throughout the city compared to previous years. According to 311 data, there were 1,680 complaints about illegal fireworks in New York between June 8 and June 15, compared to just 12 for the equivalent period last year.
De Blasio's response comes amid widespread demonstrations against police brutality and calls by activists to defund the NYPD. Police have rounded up, pushed, and shoved protesters, sometimes using batons, and arrested people en masse for violating an 8 p.m. curfew that was in effect for a week. Earlier this month, the NYPD drove a police van into a crowd of protesters. When asked about it, de Blasio said that the police had demonstrated “tremendous restraint.”
There have already been reports of aggressive police responses to fireworks. In Flatbush on June 14, after a few hours of people setting off fireworks, dozens of officers arrived in riot gear, closed off a street, and took away at least one person in handcuffs. De Blasio’s announcement indicated that policing tactics like these could continue, and perhaps escalate.
The mayor told the media that the task force would focus on the "big fish" that are selling the biggest amount of fireworks. “Within the city, we’re gonna start on the biggest operations, not focused on the kid on the corner,” de Blasio said. “We’re focused on the people that are really profiting and really distributing a lot of fireworks.”
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Joe VanOudenhove III — co-owner of Sky King Fireworks in Pennsylvania, whose fireworks have been used in Brooklyn — told BuzzFeed News that there’s no single explanation for the fireworks, although he thought that the coronavirus had forced people to be cooped up for a long time, and they’re eager to find ways to entertain themselves on a budget.
“The biggest thing is that there’s no entertainment, no sporting events, no nothing, nothing that involves large crowds,” VanOudenhove said. “We’ve had people drive from New Jersey and New York to Erie, Pennsylvania, just to get out of the house for a few hours and spend $150 on fireworks.”
VanOudenhove also said that fireworks stores in Pennsylvania — the closest state to New York where it is legal to buy fireworks — were closed on Memorial Day weekend, typically a high-volume weekend, leaving them with larger inventories than normal when they opened on June 4. He also noted that public events that normally have professional-grade fireworks, like baseball games, have been canceled due to COVID-19. Selling professional-grade fireworks is a huge source of revenue, so stores like his have had to find ways to make up the losses.
As a result, these stores have been aggressively marketing consumer-grade fireworks, often with sales. VanOudenhove said that he has been offering buy-one-get-two promotions rather than buy-one-get-one promotions. He was expecting sales to be low, but in certain weeks, he said, sales have actually been up between 50% and 200% year-over-year.
“No matter who you talked to, no one could have predicted this, the uptick in sales,” VanOudenhove said. “We were just trying to figure it out.”