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City gangs up on graffiti

By Gheni_Platenburg
May 17, 2010 at 12:17 a.m.
Updated May 18, 2010 at 12:18 a.m.

A bicyclist drives by a tagged water bridge. Graffiti can be seen on fences and bridges by users of the Lone Tree hike and bike trail.

PUNISHMENT

According to the Penal Code, graffiti occurs when "a person commits an offense if, without the effective consent of the owner, the person intentionally or knowingly makes markings, including inscriptions, slogans, drawings, or paintings, on the tangible property of the owner."

The penalty for vandalizing property with graffiti can range from a Class B misdemeanor to a first-degree felony depending on the monetary amount of damage done to the property, according to the Penal Code.

"It's easy for this crime of graffiti to be classified as a felony right away," said Sgt. Felix Appelt.

The Penal code goes on to say that graffiti that causes less than $20,000 worth of damage, but is done on certain properties can automatically be classified as a state jail felony These properties include schools, an institution of higher education, a place of worship or human burial, a public monument, or a community center that provides medical, social, or educational programs.

Victoria Police Chief Bruce Ure said the juvenile system's guidelines wouldn't allow it to charge juveniles with graffiti crimes.

"They have to pick and choose which crimes they can accept juveniles for, and unfortunately graffiti is not one of those," said Ure. "The juvenile system won't accept them so we have to enter them into the municipal system. "

Ure continued, "We have a commitment from (municipal court) that there will be a zero tolerance policy."

This zero tolerance policy includes new type of punishments.

"We've been working with juvenile probation in developing some very creative forms of accountability for offenders," said Ure.

TYPES OF GRAFFITI

According to www.graffitihurts.org, a nationwide study showed graffiti made up 35 percent of all property vandalism cases, making it the most common type of property vandalism. There are six different types of graffiti.

Tags - Account for 80 percent of graffiti. Described as the graffiti vandal's moniker applied quickly and repetitively.

Pieces aka Masterpieces - Account for 5 percent of graffiti. Described as a "large, detailed drawings" that are "colorful, can include cartoon-like characters, and may take an hour or more to complete."

Throw-ups - A more elaborate tag, usually done in two or more colors. Throw-ups often contain balloon letters, which are filled in or left as outlines.

Conventional/generic graffiti - includes random markings, initials, declarations of love, social commentary, profanity, graduation events - "Class of 1997"- and other non-threatening messages.

Gang graffiti - Used to mark gang territory, list members, offer drugs or contraband for sale or send warnings to rivals. May include letters, symbols, or numbers known only by gangs and law enforcement.

Ideological or hate graffiti - Consists of any graffiti that consists of racial, religious or cultural slurs.

Source: www.graffitihurts.org

According to www.graffitihurts.org, a nationwide study showed graffiti made up 35 percent of all property vandalism cases, making it the most common type of property vandalism.

REPORTTo report graffiti in your area, please call 361-485-3808.

The Victoria Police Department hopes new partnerships and a three-pronged approach will make graffiti artists think twice before picking up their cans of spray paint.

Recently, the police department teamed up with Keep Victoria Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that focuses on beautification and community improvement, and the Victoria County Adult Probation Department to develop a graffiti abatement program to combat rising incidents of graffiti around the city.

"We need to send a message to a lot of these kids and adults that are doing this that we're not going to stand for it," said Sgt. Felix Appelt, who heads up the police department's Community Services Division.

Victoria Police Chief Bruce Ure, who described the recent increase of graffiti as a "significant issue in this community," said, "We have a finite amount of resources here, but we have moved graffiti up on our priority list."

Police statistics showed that from February 2008 until March 2009, there were 50 reported incidents of graffiti in Victoria. However, from February 2009 until March 2010, there were 43 reported incidents of graffiti.

Although the number of reports is lower this year, Appelt said the amount of graffiti seen around town has actually "gradually increased," it was just not reported.

Police department records showed there were no arrests for graffiti over the last three years.

In Victoria, graffiti is not limited to just one section of the city.

"It's happening all over," said Joni Brown, executive director of Keep Victoria Beautiful. "You would think it's only happening on the Southside where there are more lower socioeconomic groups, but Honey, you can drive behind Walmart and see tagging."

The graffiti abatement program consists of three main focuses: clean up, monitoring and punishment.

CLEAN UP

A new program has been developed that has probationers paint over graffiti on private properties for free as long as the property owners supply the paint.

Clay Pullin, unit supervisor of the Victoria County Adult Probation Department, said he has been getting weekly calls requesting the graffiti clean up crew.

Appelt said the only drawback to this arrangement is probationers will only do spot painting meaning they will only paint over the graffiti not the entire wall or building.

"A lot of people don't want just a spot job," he said.

Unfortunately, this may be the only option for property owners who cannot afford the cost of repainting an entire wall or building for aesthetic purposes.

"Labor and materials can quickly and easily reach $1,000," said Appelt.

Jerad Nephery, 22, said the high cost of painting an entire building prompted him to spot paint the side of his convenience store after it was vandalized more than month ago.

"Graffiti just makes the building look ugly," said Nephery, who owns The Other Store No. 2. "We keep a can of paint around just in case they come back and do it again."

After a building has been vandalized, Brown said, the graffiti must be cleaned up within 24 to 48 hours to discourage more graffiti damage.

"As soon as you see graffiti, if you take it down, then there is no temptation for a rival gang to come tag over it," said Appelt.

Unlike some other cities, there are no penalties for Victoria property owners who fail to quickly remove graffiti from their properties.

"It's not something we want to do because it falls back on the owners," said Appelt. "In the future it, may come about."

MONITORING

When it comes to monitoring, the police department has set up cameras to catch offenders in the act.

"We are stepping up our enforcement actions. We are taking steps to put up cameras to capture video images of people doing it," said Appelt. "Most residents and business owners are more than willing to allow us to use their buildings for surveillance. They want it stopped before it happens to them."

Although residents are encouraged to report graffiti, many residents like 44-year-old Keith Mumphord, owner of Mumphord's BBQ, do not.

"What are they going to do, write a report," chuckled Mumphord, whose restaurant was vandalized with graffiti last year.

Victoria resident Jeff Williams, however, said he promptly reported a neighborhood mailbox that was vandalized with gang graffiti four months ago.

"I just wanted to be proactive in letting law enforcement know that something has taken place," said Williams. "I'm concerned that rising incidents like drive-by shootings that and some other situations like that would spread into this area."

Appelt attributed the decreased level of graffiti reporting to a fear of retaliation.

"They don't want to be involved. They are scared of backlash," he said.

Appelt said graffiti whistleblowers have nothing to worry about.

"We're not seeing the retaliation, but people are scared because of what they have seen or heard on TV," said Appelt. " A lot of times, they don't know who called it in."

Additionally, the graffiti abatement's monitoring efforts also consist of creating a database of known offenders.

"We'll start putting two and two together. So we can keep up with these taggers and know who is doing what," said Appelt. "That's where school resource officers come in. They can spot notebooks that have that tag."

WHO ARE THE OFFENDERS?

According to Graffiti Hurts, most studies show the majority of taggers are males between 12 and 21 years old, but about 15 percent of graffiti vandals are young females.

Additionally, arrest data from 17 major cities shows that 50 percent to 70 percent of all street-level graffiti is created by suburban adolescents, predominately males between the ages of 12 and 19.

Ure said well-known gangs might not be to blame for the majority of graffiti in Victoria.

"Some of the more sophisticated gangs are not into graffiti because it causes poor publicity," said Ure.

Appelt said authorities have not been able to pinpoint all the graffiti offenders because of the nature of the crime.

"It's not like a crime with broken glass and fingerprints unless they leave a spray bottle behind," he said.

CAUSES

Many people have hypothesized about the root cause of graffiti.

Common rationales theorize graffiti vandalism to be the result of crime, drugs and even video games.

"There's no evidence that supports young people who do graffiti do it because of video games or violent culture. Graffiti was going on in the late 1960s. That was way before the personal computer or iPhones," said Brown.

Ure said the increased graffiti around town does not necessary equal an increase in organized crime.

"I don't think its indicative or correlated to that. Our gang activity is clearly on the rise, but I think its just added up over a period of time," he said.

In addition to everyday hypotheses, scholarly research has also been done on the topic.

Cynthia L. Hookstra, a University of La Verne student, is one scholar who has investigated the causes of graffiti.

In her January 2009 master's thesis, titled Adolescent Graffiti Vandalism: Exploring the Root Causes, Hookstra said many youth see graffiti as a "peer or social activity" that is "influenced by their peers" and is about "being visible in an adult world where they are invisible."

In a study she conducted, Hookstra said the majority of youth who responded said they did graffiti because "it is cool..." indicating a "need to belong or fit in with peer groups or friends who may be involved or who are superficially involved in graffiti vandalism."

Meanwhile, the Graffiti Hurts website listed the four primary motivating factors for graffiti vandalism as fame, rebellion, self-expression and power.

"Getting the media to publish photos and videotape of graffiti is often the ultimate fame for graffiti vandals," according to the website.

Furthermore, Ure attributed graffiti to the widely accepted law enforcement broken widow theory.

In the Fall 2009 Keep Victoria Beautiful newsletter, Ure wrote, "We can expect community and business areas to worsen when trash accumulates, broken windows are present, and overall deteriorated buildings are not repaired."

GRAFFITI HAS BOTH FINANCIAL AND SOCIAL REPERCUSSIONS

The impacts of graffiti can have far-reaching effects that go beyond just the aesthetics of a building.

One such impact is decreased community pride.

The Graffiti Hurts website said graffiti sends the signal that "nobody cares," causing the further degradation of both the social and physical aspect of the neighborhood.

"Graffiti is much more than an eyesore. It's a public display of disrespect to the entire community," said Ure.

As a result of decreased community pride, Brown said communities often experience a decrease in property values.

"Less beautification efforts equal more crime. While more beautification efforts equals less crime," said Brown. "We know from watching other cities go through this that not managing graffiti causes property values to go down."

Dale Fowler, president of the Victoria Economic Development Corporation said graffiti could also potentially affect a city's economic progress.

"Many companies will consider what a community looks like when they are considering making a new investment there. Usually they will make their judgment within a one or two hour visit," said Fowler. "What they see gives them a lasting impression."

He continued, "If they like what they see, then they will be more likely to give it a more thorough evaluation. If they don't like what they see, then they will not likely take the next step."

Mumphord said he is not concerned that his current graffiti will negatively affect his business.

"Ours is not quite as noticeable since it's on the side. If it was up front, it may deter some people," he said.

OUTLOOK FOR THE FUTURE

Victoria Police Department and its partners hope the program will yield more graffiti vandalism arrests.

"With our new emphasis, we do expect to catch more (offenders)," said Ure. "This is just the inception. This is a long-term project not one that you can just put some resources in it and it will just go away."

He added, "Once you get control, you are always going to have to put resources in it to maintain it."

Ultimately, Ure said the success of the program depends on the level of community involvement.

"It's a community problem, not just a police issue. We can't solve the problem ourselves. There has to be a partnership with people in the community, especially businesses."

In addition to reporting and cleaning up instances of graffiti, residents are also encouraged to take preventative measures.

Appelt suggested making sure you have good lighting, trim your shrubbery, purchase security cameras, be vigilant and talk to your neighbors.

Brown was optimistic about the program's success.

"We won't fail. I'm not in the failure business," she said.

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