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How a California town reduced youth vandalism and recaptured costs

Reducing abatement costs, recouping funds, and diverting youth from criminal activity go from goals to realities


Sponsored by Graffiti Tracker

By Josh Ogle for PoliceOne BrandFocus

A teenager on their morning walk to school stops to wait at a crosswalk. They pull a black permanent marker from their pocket, and with a few flourishes, a tag takes shape on the nearby electrical box. The crosswalk signal changes and the tagger is gone from the scene of the crime. What cost the tagger a few seconds to achieve has set in motion a process that will cost their city in both money and man-hours. How much it will cost, and whether it will recoup that cost is up to the city.

Tagging and gang graffiti cost cities both money and time. This app can help track graffiti and recoup costs of abatement. (Image/Getty)
Tagging and gang graffiti cost cities both money and time. This app can help track graffiti and recoup costs of abatement. (Image/Getty)

Located along the 78 Freeway in the San Diego North County area of California, Escondido is a mid-sized city of approximately 155,000 people. Just like all urban areas, Escondido faces its fair share of criminal activity. Dealing with everything from auto theft to various gang-related activities, Escondido must be judicious in how it allocates the time of its roughly 150 sworn officers, and graffiti is not always a high priority. Graffiti Tracker has provided a solution that saves the city time and money, with the side benefit of offering a lesson to its wayward youth.

Finding Time

With Graffiti Tracker, an Escondido Public Works Division worker simply uses the app to photograph graffiti, and it is automatically uploaded to Graffiti Tracker. There is no need for an officer to report to the scene to photograph the graffiti, sit down, and review and analyze the photographs, which saves not only officers’ time but also the city’s money. Once an image is uploaded to the app, photos of graffiti are reviewed by Graffiti Tracker analysts for critical pieces of evidence within 24 hours of submission.

Additionally, Graffiti Tracker enables Escondido officers to tie all the damage done by a tagger back to them once they have been captured. One particularly active gang-affiliated tagger, operating under the tagger moniker “Betoe,” caused approximately $20,000 worth of damage to Escondido businesses and properties over seven months. When the offender was finally apprehended, officers only needed a few minutes to pull up relevant information, including photographs, of all the tagging Betoe had done throughout the city of Escondido. Without Graffiti Tracker, the process of retrieving all the information would have taken days of searching through files and photographs.

Finding Money

Besides gaining efficiencies by saving officers’ time, Graffiti Tracker has also allowed Escondido to begin to recoup some of the costs of graffiti abatement. Before the city’s implementation of Graffiti Tracker, court-ordered restitution to Escondido businesses was roughly $22,000 per year. However, in just one year of using Graffiti Tracker, court-ordered restitution amounts to Escondido businesses jumped to more than $185,000.

While offenders’ ability to pay restitution may vary drastically, according to the Public Works Division of Escondido, from July 2018 to February 2019, the city collected over $5,100 in restitution. While this sum recovered in restitution may not be a huge dollar amount, the deterrent effect of word spreading among youths that tagging has major, tangible costs and consequences was of substantial value.

Finding Results

Escondido has also found further successes with its juvenile diversion program by coupling it with the use of Graffiti Tracker. According to Detective Bill Havens of the Escondido Police Department, most of the taggers the city deals with are juvenile offenders. In most instances, taggers are youths that will attempt to place their monikers in as many places as possible, seeking notoriety and respect among other tagger crews. While this is true of most taggers the city deals with, there also exists a darker, gang-related side of graffiti.

Graffiti Tracker allows Escondido Police to differentiate between juveniles just getting started in tagging and established ones tied to gangs. In doing so, officers are capable of identifying minors that may benefit from the department’s juvenile diversion program. According to Havens, if Graffiti Tracker shows a juvenile tagger is responsible for “larger [graffiti pieces] or a lot of the gang graffiti, especially if the kid isn’t . . . remorseful, we just send that down to the district attorney’s office for prosecution.” On the other hand, if Graffiti Tracker shows a juvenile only has a few minor incidents that are not tied to gangs, Havens says, “diversion can steer them in the right direction and then we don’t see them again.”

Aggressive approaches to abatement coupled with Graffiti Tracker have allowed Escondido to curtail its graffiti problem substantially. If the walls in Escondido could talk, they would no longer speak of taggers and gang activity, but a city where citizens and their property are well protected.

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