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March 21, 2006
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Colo. precinct a test case for tough new graffiti policing theory

Lou Kilzer, Rocky Mountain News

Copyright 2006 Denver Publishing Company 

It's everywhere - on stop signs, front porches, alleyways, even rooftops.

Denver police precinct 414 is graffiti central.

Some 14 "tag crews" prowl the southwest Denver neighborhood, spray paint in hand, ready to announce themselves and the gangs many of them represent.

Few places are spared.

And when the city helps property owners paint over the graffiti, the crews swarm back in, sometimes within hours.

Police say one crew alone has 22 members.

Officers here believe that the omnipresent graffiti sends homeowners a simple, but potent, message: They are not safe.

Rudy Sandoval, commander of District 4, has the unenviable task of trying to get a grip on 414, somehow tackling both the graffiti and more serious crime.

Surrendering to the taggers, he says, is not an option.

"If you leave it alone, they become arrogant," he said.

The precinct, which covers a neighborhood called Westwood, is now getting a heavy dose of medicinal policing.

Two police units called SCAT - Special Crime Attack Teams - have begun blanketing the area, pulling over drivers for small infractions and rousting bad guys.

It's a test of a famed criminologist's theory on how to clean up neighborhoods.

The idea is simple: Fix supposedly minor problems - like broken windows and graffiti - and you deliver a body blow to arrogant criminals. The neighborhood recoups a sense of order, and the criminals fade away.

The theory has seemed to work where it's been applied. For example, the New York City subway system - once owned by graffiti artists - is now almost totally rid of the menace.

Whether "broken windows" policing can work in Westwood is unknown.

But Sandoval says he's ready to give it a try.

Riding along

Cops working precinct 414 Friday night said they were suffering the "rider curse," police jargon for how interesting calls seem to evaporate when civilians go on ride-alongs.

For Westwood cops, the shift turns out to be boring. Not much happening.

They are apologetic.

Except there were these incidents:

A 19-year-old, possibly drunk and driving a Cadillac, sideswipes a car, decides to flee, leaving a blocklong field of debris. He levels a stop sign, plows through bushes, digs deep ruts in a church's lawn and then fishtails into a power line pole, nearly snapping it in two.

He gets tackled by an off-duty Northglenn cop and the 414 car speeds to the scene.

As Xcel Energy workers rush to the scene to stabilize the creaking power pole, precinct 414 patrol officer Jose Velazquez interviews witnesses.

Then there is the motorcyclist with some outstanding warrants who allegedly decides to run from a state patrol officer.

Cops from Lakewood, Denver and Jefferson County charge into the area. A police helicopter sends its Jedi-like wand of light down to the ground while its heat-sensing night-vision equipment detects a warm body hiding in some bushes.

The hapless cyclist is soon bundled up by a dozen officers, including precinct 414's SCAT team.

Then there is a bust for a stolen car where the passenger runs from the scene.

That's enough action to raise the eyebrows of SCAT officers Vincent Parnitsupoun and Rob Muehlberg.

The officers decide to cruise by the fleeing man's home. A woman answers the door, saying that, no, the suspect is not around. But when the ever-polite Parnitsupoun asks if he could peek inside, the woman lets him.

The suspect is found hiding under a bed.

Arrested, the man, who has already spent a decade incarcerated and whose prison tattoos carpet his neck, asks Parnitsupoun to look up a speed dial number on the man's cell phone.

It's for his bail bondsman.

The rest of the day and night is spent pulling over cars - at least two because they have actual broken windows - and finding that the driver or passenger have arrest warrants or phony IDs.

Muehlberg, whose shiny bald head closely resembles his nickname, Pinball, says: "It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Out of 10 stops, you will find four where there's a warrant and seven where the vehicle is uninsured."

As their shift ends at midnight, there's a radio call that 20 men are fighting with broken bottles and baseball bats. The police helicopter again sends down its silver wand.

A slow night in District 4.

Too early to tell

Will increased enforcement clear up the large and small crimes in Westwood?

It's way too early to tell, Cmdr. Sandoval says.

But he says he knows this:

"For it to work, the troops have to buy into it. And the citizens have to buy into it. There has to be a total buy-in."

There has been success already on one level.

Officers set up a stakeout after a graffiti-filled wall in Westwood had been painted over.

About two hours later, a notorious tagger known as "Doom" showed up to attack the wall again. District 4 officers arrested him, and because of the cost of the damage, they persuaded prosecutors to charge him with a felony.

That's progress, said Sandoval.

He said he hopes word soon spreads that precinct 414 has returned to it rightful owners.

If it works, the commander says he will "put together a template" and use the 414 battle plan in other precincts.

INFOBOX

'Broken windows' law enforcement

* The theory: Order begets more order with the end product being a reduction in crime.

* Finding crime: At the heart of the program is an intensive data collection effort to find out where crime is happening.

* Fixing crime: By repairing broken windows and painting over graffiti, you deliver a body blow to arrogant criminals.

* Success story: In Newark, N.J., violent crime has been cut by nearly 73 percent, and property crime is down 58 percent. 
 
kilzerl@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2644; Headline p.1A - NEW POLICY TARGETS TAGGERS / Cops deal with small stuff to undermine crime.; SEE END OF TEXT FOR INFOBOX

Full story: Colo. precinct a test case for tough new graffiti policing theory






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