The Honolulu Police Department is speaking out about illegal fireworks after a New Year’s Eve that saw the skies over Oahu filled with aerials and a celebration that ended in tragedy.
Shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day, an illegal aerial firework exploded at Campbell Industrial Park, killing Liona Spencer, 38, and critically injuring Keoki Medeiros, 36.
According to Honolulu police, no arrests or citations have been issued in that case.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, central patrol assistant chief Alan Bluemke said the department issued 92 citations for various fireworks violations, and made seven felony arrests in an investigation that stemmed from a shipment of illegal fireworks out of Washington state.
“Part of the program we looked at last year heading into this year was to try to get other law enforcement agencies also involved,” Bluemke said. “We did get intelligence from a mainland state that we did have a shipment of fireworks coming into Hawaii. That shipment was allowed to come here. A male picked it up. The investigation started from there.”
All seven men have since been released pending further investigation, Bluemke said.
In addition to citations and arrests, authorities also seized an estimated 9,700 pounds of aerial fireworks and 230 pieces of other retail-grade fireworks between Dec. 1, 2016, and Jan. 1, 2017.
Despite the progress, police say enforcement is difficult.
“We need people to report it, tell us who’s doing it and when, and try to get there in time to get there and observe,” Bluemke said. “Officers actually need to see the person in possession, lighting it, or finding a witness who is willing to come forward and say that someone was setting it off, and that’s always hard.”
From Dec. 26-Jan. 1, police received 1,164 complaints as opposed to approximately 1,300 at the same time a year ago.
Bluemke says officers visited 115 homes to follow up on complaints, more than double the previous year’s amount of 54. None, however, led to arrests.
“The program that we looked at for this year was our knock-and-talk program. Basically, if we got intel that a certain residence or some place was setting off fireworks, officers went to respond, knocked on the door,” Bluemke said. “Whoever they could come across, let them know, ‘Hey, we got a complaint of fireworks over here, do you know who’s doing it?’ or basically let them know that people were willing to complain and for them, to knock it off. If (officers) did see a violation, or recovered anything, they would submit a report at that point.”
Bluemke says the department is making an effort to crack down on wholesalers and retailers.
“We’re trying to go out and gather intel ahead of time as to who might be bringing it in. The best way to kind of do that for enforcement is either plain clothes or undercover type of purchases or checks on whether they have valid licenses or storing permits,” Bluemke said.
When asked to rate police performance, Bluemke replied, “I think we did pretty good. … A lot of the officers were off on other assignments. There is a security detail for the president and various other assignments too, so we are kind of stretched thin on certain nights, so I think, generally, the officers did well with the staffing we had available.”
HPD says it favors a total ban on fireworks. Right now, the department doesn’t have an official fireworks amnesty program, but officers are willing to take them off your hands, no questions asked. Just call 911 and dispatchers will send an officer to recover them.
As for the investigation into Spencer’s death, we asked HPD if it would look into where the illegal fireworks came from. Bluemke says detectives will be asking those questions.
Close friends remembered Spencer. Jennili Sevilleja knew Spencer from when they were in elementary school, “She was just a happy go lucky person. Whenever I knew I was feeling down she would be the go to person. She would just lift our souls and make everything kind of go away. Everybody is still devastated. We lost her best friend. She was a very good mother to her kids. Her family is for everything,”
Melvina Kaliko also grew up with Liona Spencer, “She loved life. She loved her family, her kids. Anyone that was in contact with her got a piece of joy that’s the kind of person she was.”