Feature Article - November 2011
Find a printable version here

Maintenance Series: Vandalism & Graffiti

Straighten Up, Fly Right
Preventing Vandalism, Graffiti With Smart Maintenance

By Dawn Klingensmith


Indeed, graffiti cleanup takes a big bite out of municipal budgets. Large metropolises like Chicago can spend upwards of $6 million on removal, while midsize cities like Denver and Milwaukee spend about $1 million.

Besides draining tax dollars, graffiti costs communities in other ways. Graffiti sends the signal that nobody cares, attracting other forms of crime to the area.

"Aesthetically, when you get a lot of graffiti in an area, it tends to make your city look rundown," Campbell said.

Real estate values drop by as much as 10 to 20 percent, he added, and business growth and tourism decrease.

Graffiti erodes people's sense of safety, owing in part to its association with gangs and also to the perception that the very presence of graffiti implies crime is tolerated in an area.

For all these reasons, it's important to catch and prosecute vandals, Campbell said, and there are proven ways to do it.

Partner With Police

Boise began seeing a significant decline in graffiti and vandalism after the parks department forged a stronger relationship with local law enforcement officials, Conner said. He started documenting and building a database of graffiti, using a camera that would take the type and quality of photographs required to be admitted as evidence in a court of law. To avoid duplicate efforts with the police in taking and filing reports, Conner was entrusted to collect evidence at the scene and assign a police report number to his official documentation.

On a broader scale, as a highway patrolman assigned to the graffiti beat, "I closed a lot of cases just driving around to other police departments, asking questions and sharing information," Campbell said, adding that prolific taggers tend to cover a lot of territory.

In Boise, with both the police and parks departments squarely behind the mayor's zero-tolerance policy for graffiti, it's understood that "when we apprehend offenders, we really need to stick it to 'em," Conner said.

Campbell is of the same mind: "If a vandal goes out and does thousands of dollars in damage, does it make sense to get a hundred-dollar fine and community service? No."

Work with law officials to ensure that anti-graffiti laws are enforced and that there's follow-through, including strict penalties, in the court system.

Ideally, police departments should have a full-time officer working graffiti and vandalism cases, Campbell said.

Campbell recommends the use of GPS-enabled surveillance equipment to catch criminals red-handed. There are covert "tripwire" camera systems on the market that notify you by cell phone when a crime is going down and provide you with photos of the criminal act in progress. This allows for immediate apprehension of offenders.

There are Web-based services that compile graffiti intelligence, from data collection to analysis. One company uses GPS technology and satellite imaging to track the work of graffiti vandals and provide intelligence reports to law enforcement agencies.

Fast Facts about Graffiti

  • There are several types, including gang, hate and generic (nonthreatening messages like "Josh loves Janie" or "Class of 2012").
  • About 80 percent is smaller-scale, quick-hit "tagger" graffiti, while 5 percent are "pieces," or large visuals. Gang graffiti makes up about 10 percent nationwide.
  • The majority of taggers are males between ages 12 and 21.
  • Motivating factors for graffiti vandalism are fame or notoriety, rebellion, self-expression and power.