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Cities are answering the scrawl

With graffiti on the rise, Southland police use high technology to track and catch taggers.

March 05, 2007|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

The 15-year-old boy who scrawled graffiti on the window of a bus carrying Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made headlines because he was photographed in the act.

But the vast majority of taggers roam the streets with impunity -- prompting police and community leaders to fight back with new high-tech tools that go well beyond cans of paint and roller brushes.

In Los Angeles, cleanup crews removed 27 million square feet of graffiti last year, up from 21 million square feet in 2004, officials said. In other areas of Los Angeles County, 13 million square feet of walls and other surfaces were cleaned, up from 9 million the previous year, according to county public works records.

And officials are finding graffiti in new and unexpected places.

"My staff goes to Compton all the time, but now we're going to Malibu," said Valerie Hill, manager of the county Department of Public Works' graffiti abatement program. "There's a ton up in Altadena, the San Gabriel Valley area ... the Covinas, the Glendoras. We never saw that before."

Santa Clarita increased its cleanup efforts last fall in response to a surge in graffiti, while several Inland Empire communities have started offering rewards in hopes the public will turn taggers in. The city of Orange has seen a significant jump as well, with the cost of removing graffiti jumping nearly 40% over the last year, said Lyman Otley, Orange's building and facilities superintendent.

"In the last three or four months, it's been horrible," said Riverside City Councilman Ed Adkison. "I suspect it runs in cycles, and for whatever reason people are out tagging right now."

Why graffiti is on the rise is a mystery, although some police officials believe it is tied to a surge in gang-related crime over the last year.

"As the gang problem seems to be increasing, so does the gang graffiti," said Paul Racs, director of Los Angeles' Office of Community Beautification, adding that the city has seen surges in Venice, Pacific Palisades and other parts of the Westside. Much of the tagging is home-grown, from teens and tagging crews in these neighborhoods.

"These aren't kids that are coming from some other part of the city and coming out to the Palisades to tag," he said. "For the most part, people are staying in their own communities and tagging them up."

Whatever the reason, police are looking for new ways to attack the problem.

They are using global positioning systems, mass data storage and digital photography to track graffiti vandals. The sophisticated tools allow police to amass evidence and build stronger cases against culprits than just a few years ago. Sheriff's detectives are logging on to to catch taggers who use the social networking site to brag about their exploits.

"The technology five years ago wasn't what it is today," said Tim Kephart, founder of Graffiti Tracker Inc., which has contracts with 13 Southern California cities.

His system uses a camera fitted with a global positioning device to photograph and record the location of graffiti. Usually, a police officer or other city worker will take a picture of the tagging. A Graffiti Tracker analyst reviews the markings and categorizes them based on whether they appear to come from a gang or an individual tagger.

The information is then uploaded into an Internet database that police can search to determine patterns of graffiti incidents.

After two months of tracking graffiti on walls and lampposts, Sheriff's Det. Scott Wolf of the department's Carson station caught the tagger who called himself "Pakr," one of the area's leading graffiti vandals.

Driving in a dark-colored sedan on a chilly night, Wolf spotted the 15-year-old loitering outside a house. At first, the teen denied tagging, but after Wolf and Kephart confronted him with the evidence -- images of graffiti stored on Kephart's hand-held computer -- Pakr admitted to 13 felony counts of graffiti vandalism, Wolf said.

For decades officials have battled graffiti, which has long been a marker for gangs. The vandalism surged in the early 1990s with the rise of "tagging crews" that were not associated with gangs but roamed the streets at night, leaving their marks on as many walls as possible.

Governments responded by hiring crews to promptly paint over graffiti and boosting night police patrols. Caltrans placed barbed wire and barriers on freeway signs to deter taggers. Those efforts reduced tagging -- for a while.

Many officials said the old way of fighting graffiti -- quickly painting over it -- is a failed strategy.

"The only result it has [is] if you get rid of graffiti right away, is you get rid of graffiti right away," Kephart said. "The tagger will say, 'What's the worry, nobody's tracking it, there's no intelligence and no one's coming after me.' It makes them bolder."

Tagging used to be a fairly anonymous criminal activity, with vandals striking by night with obscure monikers whose meaning was lost on most passersby. But that has changed with the proliferation of Internet communities.

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