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Bratton Is Planning a Clean Start

The police chief, who will be sworn in today, sees fighting graffiti as key to reducing crime.

October 25, 2002|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

When William J. Bratton is sworn in today as the Los Angeles Police Department's 54th chief, he inherits an agency accused in recent years of corruption and brutality.

Crime is up and arrests are down.

Topping his list of priorities? Graffiti.

Far from trivial, Bratton said, fighting graffiti is the key to reducing crime overall and solving more serious offenses -- from drug dealing to murder.

It is so bad here that after touring the city, Bratton, former head of the New York Police Department, called L.A.'s graffiti the worst he's ever seen.

"I hate it with a passion," he said of the painted blight that scars walls, sidewalks, awnings, windows, mailboxes, signs, freeway overpasses, even trees.

More than 30 million square feet of graffiti were painted over or sandblasted in L.A. last year, more than New York City officials cleaned up over four years at the height of their anti-graffiti battle.

"It sounds like he's proposing invading Russia in winter," said Mike Davis, a UC Irvine history professor who once found the inside of his mailbox tagged when he was living in Echo Park.

But Bratton said fighting graffiti is key to the so-called broken windows philosophy of policing that he plans to import to Los Angeles. The idea is that eradication of petty crimes and unkempt properties creates safer cities.

The new chief's anti-graffiti push comes at a time when more is being done to combat tagging in Los Angeles than ever. But will Bratton -- strapped by budget constraints -- be able to wring improvement without more money or personnel?

On his side are a host of recent initiatives: A 2-year-old law lowers the threshold for felony graffiti offenses from $5,000 in damage to $400. The reward for graffiti tips that lead to convictions was doubled to $1,000. Community-based groups are buying digital cameras to record graffiti -- evidence for police and prosecutors.

Still, graffiti fighters say they have lost ground in the war with street vandals. Over the last 18 months, they say, tagging has gotten worse -- even with money to remove graffiti at an all-time high and felony graffiti arrests rising dramatically.

"It makes sense to go after graffiti," said Cara Gould, operations director of Homeboy Industries, which holds a city contract for graffiti abatement in some of the hardest hit East L.A. neighborhoods. "We've seen kids die because of graffiti," Gould said. "If one gang goes into another's neighborhood and writes graffiti, it makes them mad and their impulse is to grab a gun and get even."

Davis, who has written extensively about local politics and gangs, acknowledged that L.A. has a graffiti problem. But he questions whether, in a city with more territory and only a quarter of the police officers of New York, a war on graffiti might do more harm than good. Homicides are up, he said, well past 500 people so far this year.

"I can't imagine anything worse than declaring no tolerance of graffiti in terms of mismanaging police manpower," Davis said.

Bratton disagreed.

To permit vandals and gang members to deface property is "effectively surrendering the authority of government to them," he said. "You cannot let them control your streets. If they're trying to do it by marking the streets with graffiti, then get rid of it."

Bratton sees himself as anti-graffiti's "chief cheerleader." He said the city can be cleaned up with greater coordination, as well as a change in attitude by citizens, police and prosecutors.

His approach would mark a shift in LAPD thinking. Even activists who fight graffiti each day say they understand police have more important work.

But Bratton said he wants "all officers to take cognizance of graffiti and to make arrests when appropriate." He said he may create a specialized division or two within the LAPD to combat graffiti.

Bratton's policy is a form of "social jujitsu," said Joel Garreau, who wrote "Edge City: The New Frontier," a book about modern communities. Graffiti is not about aesthetics, he said.

"It's the notion that you can demonstrate you are taking back the streets," Garreau said. "It's looking for a place where you can have some social impact quickly so it doesn't seem hopeless to the cops or citizenry."

Bratton may make headway by better coordinating the battle.

Los Angeles is spending more money on graffiti abatement -- an eleven-fold jump from a $500,000 pilot program in 1994 -- but police and the district attorney's and city attorney's offices do not track graffiti arrests or prosecutions. (The district attorney's office calculated the number of prosecutions after a request by The Times.)

There also is confusion over who is doing what.

The LAPD's Web site touted its Graffiti Habitual Offender Suppression Team in a news release last year. But LAPD public affairs officers said recently that they were only vaguely aware of what it was.

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