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Region : HAWTHORNE : Taggers Become Focus of Attention

March 17, 1994|SCOTT SANDELL

Law enforcement: Community activists plan to use special hidden cameras to catch graffiti vandals red-handed. The evidence will be turned over to police for action.

Graffiti taggers in Hawthorne may earn some unwanted notoriety next month.

Community activists plan to use hidden cameras to catch the vandals red-handed. Volunteers armed with low-light, high-resolution cameras from the city's cable operation will begin staking out some of Hawthorne's most heavily vandalized areas in early April. Participants in the program, patterned after a similar effort in Lomita, will not accost the taggers but report them to the police by cellular phone.

"We hope to nab a few graffiti taggers and help them change their ways, whether they want to or not," said Albert Wise, a chief organizer of the plan and a member of the city's Graffiti and Gang Abatement Commission. "But more than anything, we want them to not tag in the first place."

Taggers who are caught will have to pay for removal of the graffiti, city officials said. If the offender is under 18 and caught between 10 p.m. and sunrise, his or her parents could be fined $2,500 under the city's curfew law.

In addition, young taggers could be placed in a counseling program.

"We would like to see this be more of a redemptive program than a punitive one," said Wise, who often deals with troubled children in his work as pastor of the Del Aire Assembly of God Church in Hawthorne.

Hawthorne spends about $150,000 a year cleaning up graffiti.

"We can take the graffiti off the walls all day long, but if we don't give these kids a reason to stop, they won't," said Steve Hanna, who supervises the city's six full-time graffiti removal workers.

City crews respond to about 500 calls each week, often returning twice in the same day to hot spots along Hawthorne Boulevard and Prairie Avenue.

"Sometimes when we go out to clean up a wall, the kids will sit there and tell us that they're just going to put the graffiti back up when we leave," Hanna said. "They're very bold about it. Maybe the cameras will make them a little less bold."

Organizers of the undercover program hope to emulate the success of their counterparts in Lomita, who have used hidden surveillance cameras since early 1993 to reduce graffiti.

Like Hawthorne and many South Bay cities, Lomita has grappled with a rise in vandalism over the past five years, said Don Turman, chairman of the Lomita Gangs and Graffiti Committee.

By the end of last year, most South Bay cities had passed ordinances prohibiting the sale of spray-paint cans to minors and many had set up graffiti-reporting hot lines.

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But Lomita's attempt to photograph and identify taggers has been an especially effective deterrent, officials said.

Christine Villarreal, Lomita's building and safety officer, said the amount of graffiti citywide has declined dramatically. In 1991, she would spend half of her time issuing notices to homeowners and businesses to clean up graffiti. Today, she spends only about a fifth of her time doing so, she said.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it has arrested at least two taggers as a direct result of the surveillance program.

"The cameras have stopped a lot of the problems, but not all of them," Turman said. "Nothing's going to stop graffiti completely."

Officials in Hawthorne and Lomita emphasize that the hidden cameras are not a cure-all and don't address what they consider to be the root of the graffiti problem.

"We need to give kids something better to do with their lives," said Tom Quintana, secretary for the Hawthorne Gang and Graffiti Abatement Commission. "Some of these kids have some real artistic talent, but they need to find a more productive way to express themselves."

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