How police can investigate and prosecute taggers

Cities spend millions of dollars a year combating this problem without getting restitution


By PoliceOne Staff

From the drawings on temple walls in ancient Egypt to the inscriptions scattered throughout the Catacombs of Rome, as long as there have been humans, there has been graffiti.

It’s a problem that police officers need no reminder of – whether rural or urban, big city or small town, graffiti is a persistent issue plaguing virtually every community in America. In fact, an estimated $12 billion is spent on cleaning up graffiti per year in the United States, according to the Department of Justice. Here’s how police can investigate and prosecute the most prolific of these vandalizers: taggers.

A person walks through an alley decorated with graffiti messages in downtown Aberdeen, Wash., Thursday, June 15, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A person walks through an alley decorated with graffiti messages in downtown Aberdeen, Wash., Thursday, June 15, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

WHY INVESTIGATING AND PROSECUTING GRAFFITI VANDALS MATTERS

From broken windows theory to studies that have tracked the correlation between graffiti and other crime, there’s no denying the criminal cost of graffiti. But perhaps a more compelling argument for city officials who need to be convinced of the importance of law enforcement’s role in combatting graffiti is cost and restitution.

Timothy Kephart, founder and CEO of GraffitiTracker, a web-based solution that helps identify, track, prosecute and seek restitution from graffiti vandals, sees the issue in many cities: they're attacking the problem by just doing cleanup. But that doesn't really solve the issue when they're not prosecuting the people who are responsible. In the end, they're spending more money than if they were actually going after the perpetrators.

“The cities we work with – they're spending millions of dollars a year, and when they go and they catch a kid because they're tracking it, they have this kid's chronological history of vandalism that could be 30, 40, 50 or 60 incidents of graffiti,” Kephart said. “So it's not like they're catching a kid that just did one piece of graffiti and that's it. They're usually sending to court cases where there's dozens of incidents. So the judge is able to see the severity and the proliferation of this individual and their vandalism. It's kind of like if you're going down the street and you smash a car window, you're probably going to get a pretty light sentence. But if the police were to catch you vandalizing and smashing 50 car windows, the courts are going to take that a lot more seriously, and it's the same thing with graffiti.”

TAGGER GRAFFITI VS. GANG GRAFFITI

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, there are four main types of graffiti: gang, ideological, spontaneous and tagger. Of these four, of most concern to law enforcement in terms of day-to-day operations is tagger and gang graffiti. Contrary to popular belief, taggers – not gangs – produce the most graffiti, which can range from high-volume simple hits to complex street art.

In most cases, taggers come up with a moniker and are driven primarily by tagging that moniker in as many places as possible, like freeways, bathrooms and construction sites. The more difficult the spot is to reach, the more impressive the tag. The majority of taggers are young – ranging from 12 to 18 years old.

“You get some older ones in there, some outliers, but that's usually the bulk of your taggers,” Kephart said. “So they don't really have a high circle of travel; most of their graffiti takes place in areas close to where they either live or maybe go to school or go to work. Whereas the gang stuff is pretty much contained within the gang territory.”

Operating mostly late at night or early morning and usually traveling in crews, taggers seek the notoriety that comes with their vandalism.

“The biggest difference that really comes into play between gang and tagger graffiti is the motivation,” Kephart said. “The motivation for gang graffiti is spreading fear and intimidation in the community – to the public, police and other gangs – and that's why it's written in a style where you can easily make out the letters. Whereas tagging graffiti, the motivation is for fame and notoriety. So the purpose for tagging graffiti is really to get your name out there amongst your tagger peers.”

Because a tagger’s audience is intended to be others in the subculture, it can be more difficult to decipher than other forms of graffiti.

TARGETING GRAFFITI THE SMART WAY

Communication is key when it comes to tracking down taggers. In many cities, there is a lack of coordination and communication between public works and law enforcement, despite both having an important role in combating graffiti.

“Probably the biggest challenge that city governments face is that you have two completely separate entities between the law enforcement and the public works folks,” Kephart said. “So law enforcement, they may hear complaints from the community about the graffiti problem but they don't realize the extent of it. And public works, who is in a completely different department and doesn't really communicate this information to law enforcement, they may very well be budgeting half a million to a million dollars a year painting over this problem. But the police department doesn't realize how bad that problem is because they don't see that information.”

Kephart says public works should be utilized by law enforcement for documenting graffiti. Some police agencies call upon citizens to help, but it’s the graffiti abatement teams that are out there every day and are going to have the ability to truly capture the scope of the problem.

“You're never going to have the volume of calls for service equal the volume for what the crews actually go out and remove,” Kephart said. “They know where the traffic generally is located. So they're going out all the time and hitting up those areas where they know there's always going to be graffiti and painting over it themselves.”

Cities need a centralized system where all of these agencies targeting graffiti – from public works to police – can share information. A centralized system to document, decipher and track these incidents is crucial to successful investigation and prosecution of individual taggers. Of course, identifying and tracking all these monikers can be time consuming and resource intensive, which is why services like GraffitiTracker can help.  

“Your best bet is you have your graffiti abatement crews that are already going out there anyway, have them photograph each incident, upload the incident into our system, we do the analysis so the police department doesn't have to spend any resources on that, and then they get all the benefits where they see who's doing the most damage, where they're doing the most damage, what locations, and how frequently,” Kephart said. “So when they go after the person, he's no longer being charged with one or two counts of vandalism, he's being charged with 40, 50 or 60 counts of vandalism because you can see all this money. And most importantly, that means agencies and city municipal governments can start getting this money back that they're spending now – they can get it back in the form of restitution.”

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