After crowd problems, Woods to consider fireworks options

By: April Lehmbeck | Grosse Pointe Times | Published July 16, 2014

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — There were two images left behind from this year’s fireworks — one of gatherings where friends and families enjoyed each other’s company and the fireworks, and the other of unruly crowds and multiple fights that left public safety officers struggling to keep up with dangerous situations.

Those fights and unruly crowds, which reportedly included two gangs from Detroit, led to talk about the possibility of canceling or moving the fireworks next year. 

Since the fireworks incident, City Administrator Al Fincham and Public Safety Director Andrew Pazuchowski have been working to learn more about what occurred, including talking to officials at the Detroit Crime Commission.

“What was once a community event in the last three years has become more of a policing event,” Fincham said.

He said that they were told that the reason so many youths came out stems from how gangs are operating.

“The reason that they congregated in such mass is that they share through social media … rival gang challenges,” Fincham said, adding that they go online and threaten each other.  “They’re posing challenges to them, they’re threatening them, and what they do is they carry it out at public events.”

They videotape their fights to upload online so they can use them as bragging rights, Fincham said.

While he said he knows the names of the two gangs that were at the fireworks, he said that he would not release those names.

“I don’t want to bring further notoriety to them because that’s what they’re looking for,” Fincham said.

He did say, however, that one of those two gangs is well-known to the Detroit Crime Commission.

“They’re a very dangerous, well-organized, violent group, and they all carry guns,” Fincham said.

Fincham said he asked if that meant that there were guns at the fireworks event, and he was told, “Without a doubt.”

“Thank God that they didn’t start shooting each other and one of our residents got hit,” he said.

City Council came together to discuss the fireworks issue during its July 14 Committee of the Whole, but the council refrained from making any decisions on the future of the city’s annual fireworks celebration while officials consider all the variables.

It’s a decision that lies in the council’s hands.

“I do not think we should be taking any action tonight,” Mayor Robert Novitke said. “I think we need to absorb this information. I think we need to look at the options.

“We do have to find a solution,” he said. 

Others at the table agreed.

“I want to continue the fireworks. I just want to find a better way to do it,” Council member Todd McConaghy said. “I think there’s a lot of things we need to explore, and look at these things carefully.”

Some council members witnessed the problems that night.

Council member Kevin Ketels said he saw one of the incidents.

“I was very concerned with what I saw, and there was an appropriate, strong police response to it.”

He agrees with moving cautiously.

“I think that there’s a big sense of community around the fireworks where families and friends are sharing in this event,” he added. “I don’t want to cast it aside so easily.”

The council mentioned some ideas including curfews, moving the fireworks to Lake Front Park so that only residents can attend, security cameras and more. The council could even cancel the fireworks for one year. Council members said there are many factors with any of the options, and some potential options might not work out for logistical or other reasons.

Council members seemed a bit torn between a desire to continue a tradition in the city, but also to do whatever it takes to ensure safety.

While sponsors pay for the fireworks, the city does have a cost for public safety. The city also has made some improvements over the years, such as implementing a family area, Novitke said.

Novitke described what he’s seen in the neighborhoods with backyard barbecues, children in red wagons heading up to the fireworks with their families, and people picking just the right spot to set up their blankets for the show. He also talked about the dangerous situation that unfolded the night of this year’s fireworks.

He said the only good that has come out of this situation is that there are people coming forward to talk about their passion for the community event and the strong desire to have a sense of community.

The Public Safety Department had to deal with up to 2,000 youths between 13-17 years old in the area.

Novitke wants people to know that this isn’t a situation that involved only a couple of fights.

“Officers have said we won’t even come back next year — that’s how bad that was,” Novitke said of officers from other communities who worked the fireworks.

A number of residents came to the City Council meeting July 14 to give their input on the situation.

Resident George McMullen Jr. said this has put the city in between a “rock and a hard place.”

He recommended residents visit the city’s website to get contact information to make their voices heard.

One of those residents was Big Boy owner Dan Curis, who said he had to close his business early due to safety concerns.

He said he was concerned about the safety of officers. He said maybe there’s another option the city could consider instead of taking an event away.

“I do want to thank the police department. They worked very, very hard that night,” Curis said. “There was a fight in the Big Boy lot that they took care of for me. We do have a problem; it does need to be addressed.”

Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education Secretary Judy Gafa said she was lucky in that she had family visiting from out of town and they enjoyed the fireworks without realizing there had been incidents until hearing about it the next morning.

She thanked the police and council for stepping back to consider all of the variables.

“I think that’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I’d hate to cancel something that has become a tradition because we haven’t looked at everything.”

“If we cancel them, the people who don’t live here suffer no consequences,” she said, adding that the residents would be affected instead.

Another resident stepped up to mention the idea of a mobile command trailer, which is used effectively at another festival.

Some wanted the city to find a way to preserve the fireworks, including Planning Commission member Richard Rozycki.

“We had family and friends over to watch the fireworks,” he said.

The day after, when he was cleaning up with his son, his son “told (him) it was the best day of his life.”

Other children who were over at his house that night also said it was the best day of their lives.

Rozycki said he has fond childhood memories of the fireworks.

“I just don’t think that we need to overreact,” he said. “We’d really just be punishing our residents if we cancel the fireworks.”

Others are ready to pull the plug, including resident Joanne Hamlin.

“It’s just so unlike our wonderful Grosse Pointe Woods, so the bottom line is, is it worth it for us to have fireworks?” she said. “There are fireworks all over the city; every night, there are fireworks.

“To me, it’s insane for us to even consider not cancelling them or to at least have them … at the park,” she said.

She said she is against the fireworks if they continue in the same format as this year.

She worries about property values from the bad publicity. She asked that the fireworks be suspended for a year.

Ultimately, council members said they have a lot of work to do on the issue in the upcoming months.

“The first thing that we’re going to have to do is spend a lot of time vetting all of the ideas before us,” Council member Richard Shelter Jr. said. “We have a lot of information that we do have to go through completely.”