The detectives gathered at the Westminster police station at about 5 p.m. ready for an evening of undercover work.
Dressed in T-shirts, jeans, and shorts, they headed out with backpacks and coolers with everything they’ll need for the night ahead.
Their first meeting was already set – a man with fireworks for sale who would be available after 6 p.m. The meeting would be at the team’s usual spot in a nearby parking lot where the various detectives and patrol unit have good visibility and can secure the area.
“We’ve got all the driveways covered,” Detective Sgt. Kevin MacCormick said while sitting in a police van waiting for the suspect to arrive.
Waiting is a big part of the fireworks sting operations.
“Sometimes we can sit out here for hours waiting,” MacCormick said.
As part of the Westminster Police Department’s efforts to curb the use of illegal fireworks for the Fourth of July holiday and address complaints by residents, the agency began employing this kind of undercover work in the week leading up to last year’s festivities. The operations resulted in nine arrests (including a man on probation for arson) and recovered more than 300 pounds of fireworks.
Fireworks are a hot topic for Westminster residents who complain of their use in the city leading up to and following the Fourth of July holiday. Westminster allows legal “safe and sane” fireworks in the city from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the Fourth of July.
In addition to the undercover work this year and last year the Westminster Police Department implemented efforts to mitigate such illegal activity about a month before the Fourth of July, including televised public service announcements and signage throughout the city. All Westminster Police Department employees are required to work during the holiday.
“Nobody gets time off in the first part of July,” Acting Police Chief Mark Lauderback said during a recent Neighborhood Watch meeting.
By the evening of June 26 – the third night of sting operations – detectives had caught five people attempting to sell illegal fireworks, including one felony arrest, over two nights.
“Last year we got a car full of guys and they had a trunk full of fireworks,” MacCormick said.
Normally the fireworks sting operations result in misdemeanor citations for possession of illegal fireworks (it’s a $1,000 fine). But occasionally there are felony cases – including one from the previous night involving homemade fireworks.
“Last night the guy brought us M-80s to sell us,” MacCormick said. “We had to call the bomb squad.”
Homemade M-80s are highly unstable and particularly dangerous, he said. So, while confiscated fireworks are typically taken to the local Orange County Fire Authority station for handling, these fireworks required a call to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Bomb Squad. And the suspect was booked at the Orange County Jail on a felony arrest.
“People really need to understand how dangerous these things are … especially the homemade ones,” MacCormick said. “They’re just very unstable and they do a lot of damage to people.”
While the detectives wait in their unmarked vehicles throughout the lot, they are on their cell phones texting and making connections with potential fireworks sellers on discussion boards. Occasionally the detectives discuss with each other possible meetups with suspects over their police radios. But not all leads come through – sometimes the potential seller gets spooked and doesn’t show up.
“The word’s out that we’re doing this,” MacCormick said.
It was nearing 7 p.m. when detectives spotted the seller’s vehicle – a red Chevrolet Silverado. As soon as the driver parked at the designated meeting spot, the detectives and patrol unit surrounded the truck.
One detective asked the driver if he had a gun, to which the driver answered yes, MacCormick said. Guns drawn, the team handcuffed the driver and passenger, and confiscated a Glock 45 and its magazine in the driver’s possession. The detectives also confiscated three boxes of fireworks, which were taken to the OCFA station. Both suspects were taken back to the station for questioning.
“We never know who we’re gonna get when they show up,” MacCormick said.