How one community reduced crime using graffiti analysis
An integrated strategy includes cleaning up graffiti, prosecuting vandals, working with the community and decoding threats
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During the heyday of L.A.’s gang wars in the late ’90s, crime spilled into the tidy, working-class neighborhoods of this small city in Los Angeles County.
Today, some 20 years later, community leaders and residents are able to concern themselves less with crime and more with quality-of-life issues, like the famously congested SoCal traffic.
That’s thanks in part to a concerted effort by officials of Paramount’s public safety department to address some of the underlying factors that affect crime rates and to implement strategies to nip lower-level crimes in the bud before they become bigger problems.
One of those gateway crimes is graffiti vandalism. A commonly held theory in criminal justice and policing suggests that visible signs of vandalism, such as broken windows or graffiti, encourage further crime and disorder, whereas an environment that is visibly cared for sends the signal that crime is not tolerated.
“If you have graffiti, you're not going to attract the hardworking individuals that are going to give to your economy,” said Adriana Lopez, Paramount’s public safety director. “These are the people who want to buy their first home and make sure that their kids are doing well in school. They see graffiti as related to crime.”
In 2009, Paramount recorded an average of about 15,000 graffiti incidents per year, says Anthony Martinez, a management analyst for Paramount’s public safety department. This got the attention of city officials, who began to look for a solution that would help them curtail the problem. They chose to implement Graffiti Tracker, a comprehensive, web-based system that helps police and public works departments document instances of graffiti and upload photos for permanent storage and review by highly-trained staff who analyze and report on any gang information or tagging monikers that can be useful in thwarting violence or apprehending and prosecuting suspects.
“Graffiti Tracker provided that investigative tool that allowed us to identify, prosecute and seek restitution from our most active vandals, whether taggers or documented gang members,” said Martinez. “Some of our deputies that are assigned to address these quality-of-life issues gained the information they needed to start putting cases against them for them for felony vandalism.”
Between 2015 and 2018, Paramount achieved some impressive statistics in their war against crime:
• A 68% reduction in graffiti incidents.
• A 93% 10-year decrease in gang-related crimes.
• A 63% yearly decrease in gang-related crimes.
Here are four tips from city leaders for getting the most out of Graffiti Tracker to deter crime:
Abate graffiti quickly
Graffiti Tracker allows law enforcement, city public works department employees and others to take a photo of a graffiti tag and upload the photographic evidence to a data repository for storage and analysis within 24 hours.
Approximately 80% of graffiti activity is “tagging” – the motivation for which is fame and notoriety for the tagger, who is most often a male between the ages of 12 and 17. The tagger will adopt a moniker that he stylizes and spray paints in publicly visible places. The more visible the tag or the more difficult it is to reach, the more the tagger gains in stature, often retagging the same spot repeatedly once cities scrub or repaint.
The speed at which graffiti can be documented and then abated is key for this reason: By abating or painting over the tag as soon as possible, the city denies the tagger the visibility of his moniker and thus the thing he craves most – status among his peers.
“In Paramount, our philosophy and message to the residents is that we remove graffiti within 72 hours,” said Lopez, “and usually within just 24.”
The city also encourages homeowners to use standard paint colors so that when graffiti needs to be abated, it can be done so quickly and in a visual style that’s in keeping with the neighborhood, avoiding the patchwork of different paint colors that signal graffiti lurks underneath.
Track and prosecute vandalism
When Paramount started using Graffiti Tracker to track and analyze graffiti, it gave the city the ability to monitor which tags were made by which individual and where they occurred. Once the tagger is identified, he or she can be identified and be held responsible for the damages, including restitution.
“Graffiti is like social media, where the person tells everyone what they do, where they go and who all their friends are,” said Lopez. “Say you have a gang member whose moniker is ‘Puppet.’ Right away, we are able to start tracking Puppet because we know he likes to hang out at this area because that's where all his graffiti is.”
By knowing where Puppet is likely to appear again, law enforcement can start connecting the dots and potentially catch him committing acts of vandalism or other crimes and start building a case for prosecution.
Collaborate with the community
Often, however, restitution may be impossible for a family with few financial resources, and in the case of a minor, the parents may be completely unaware of their child’s behavior. Requiring families to make even a small, monthly amount of restitution can be a regular reminder for the parents to stay involved in their child’s life and a reminder to the tagger that his or her actions have an impact on their loved ones.
“It's not the fact that we're getting restitution,” said Martinez. “It's the fact that a message has been sent out that you will be responsible and we are tracking your activities. We'll get maybe $75 here, $25 there – nothing significant. But a message has been sent out.”
Regardless of ability to pay, holding taggers accountable when they are teenagers engaged in low-level vandalism may be enough to steer them away from a life of more serious crime.
“Sometimes if it's just the beginning of this criminal career for this person, it could sway him not to do something,” said Lopez.
Martinez also advocates getting the rest of the community involved. He and Lopez are both active with local schools to help principals and faculty identify at-risk youth and intervene when would-be taggers start with a small moniker in a school bathroom, for instance.
Investigate gang activity to prevent violence
Graffiti Tracker also provides an investigative tool that allows investigators to quickly identify a threat, whether it’s a threat to peace officers or a threat to other gang members.
“We have used Graffiti Tracker countless times to identify active gang members that were involved in violent crimes,” said Martinez, who is often called upon to decode the messages hidden in plain sight in the graffiti.
“For instance, ‘187’ is the California Penal Code for murder,” said Martinez. “It's typical when one gang puts ‘187’ alongside with the moniker of a rival gang member, or even a law enforcement officer, they are planning murder against that person.”
Graffiti is not merely a nuisance. When a threat is made from one gang to a rival gang through graffiti, the gang is essentially advertising their criminal activity, tipping off law enforcement that there is a looming threat of violence.
“That tells us that in the next week or two, odds are that whoever is responsible for the graffiti is going to show up again, and probably in possession of a firearm, either to commit a murder or for protection,” said Martinez. “Our ability through Graffiti Tracker to remove them through arrest based off the criminal acts of vandalism also assists us in preventing violent crime both for the tagger or gang member, and for the general public who may or may not be victims of a stray bullet.”