America the Messy Yard Police State

Anti-graffiti specialist patrols Chandler streets

Don't these cops have any real criminals to hunt down? What percent of the police budget is spent hunting down graffiti and other messy yard criminals?


Anti-graffiti specialist patrols Chandler streets

by Megan Boehnke - Nov. 23, 2009 09:17 AM

The Arizona Republic

Tim O'Neil paints over the overnight calls first, then hits the usual "hot spots."

He's working the 600 block of Detroit and Buffalo streets in Chandler, where gangs frequent the alleys with spray paint and lurk behind businesses near major intersections, marking utility boxes and dumpsters with grease pens.

Along the freeway walls and overpasses, taggers like to leave elaborate artwork with their tag name for thousands of people to see as they drive by.

"I find a lot of calls on my own, but it helps when people call it in. Usually it's nicer neighborhoods where you don't expect to have graffiti," O'Neil said Thursday, breaking from his day that begins at 6 a.m. with his city-owned pickup truck, loaded with paint.

O'Neil, a code enforcement assistant, is on the front lines of what has become an increasingly complex battle against graffiti in Chandler and other Valley cities. He has been with the city for almost a decade, and spends four days a week for 10 hours a day searching for graffiti to paint over. The longer the paint stays up, the more credence it gives its author, the city and Police Department reason, so they give O'Neil free rein to paint over all the graffiti he finds.

What he finds goes into a log - when and where the damage was done, and how much paint was used in square feet - that goes to an inspector who moves the paperwork along to the police.

So far, it's the best system the city has, though the Police Department has used grants to purchase a camera that can stamp each photograph with a GPS location. The photos can be uploaded into software developed from an outside company called Graffiti Tracker, a program Phoenix police implemented last year as a trial run and recently purchased for full-time use.

Although grants purchased the camera, budget crunches mean they haven't been able to consider the nationally used Graffiti Tracker software. The program would create a searchable database with locations and photographs of various graffiti reports, including monikers, tag names, location and other descriptors.

Most of the roughly 1,800 graffiti calls each year are in the downtown area, where the city's gang activity is concentrated in a 4-mile radius dubbed the redevelopment area. There is almost none south of the Santan Freeway.

O'Neil estimates that 60 percent or more of all graffiti he covers up is gang-related.

When he spotted markings such as the "S.S.C." initials, which stands for a local gang name, on a red wall near a dumpster Wednesday, he took photos of the vandalism.

The Tempe Police Department, which is also looking into the Tracker program, has always had a similar approach. Patrol officers and those with the city's graffiti program make criminal damage reports, largely with no suspects, that go into the records system. Most are never attached to charges.

Tempe police Lt. Jim Peterson, as a gang sergeant, said he would see all the graffiti reports on his desk. He used to toss the non-gang graffiti - which, in Tempe, accounts for about 90 percent of the vandalism- into a pile to be passed off to someone else. He started recognizing monikers and decided to keep a log of all the reports. He noticed when much of the graffiti matched that in other reports.

"Wouldn't it be nice if we all had one database with all these sorts of reports so if somebody arrests him we can charge him with everything?" Peterson rhetorically asked a handful of officers last month during training for the Tempe software.

Phoenix is considering joining Tempe's program as well as Graffiti Tracker, making it possible to cross-reference the databases to build cases against suspected serial taggers.

The idea, Peterson said, is to string together enough cases against one suspect that they can increase criminal charges involving property damage dollar amounts - potentially from misdemeanors to low-level felonies.

Now he wants to start bringing other agencies into the mix: "Because we all know a tagger isn't going to go to the Tempe-Phoenix border and say, 'Oh, that's 48th street, I'm not going to cross that."

Peterson said he's spoken with Chandler officers who seem interested, but there have been no formal talks. He's still implementing the program in his own department and says it will be months before he can bring in other agencies.

In Chandler, patrol officers often make criminal damage reports on single graffiti incidents, but anything gang-related goes straight to the gang unit. The unit also takes serial taggers when someone notices a pattern.

Meanwhile, the city continues to spend $20,000 a year, with $6,000 coming from grants, to pay for the paint to cover up the marred buildings, dumpsters and utility boxes.


America the Messy Yard Police State