Inland Empire Law enforcement using new tools to go after graffiti perpetrators

Victor Ibarra, with the Fontana City Graffiti Maintenance Crew, takes photographs of graffiti Tuesday on Cypress Avenue across from A.B. Miller High School in Fontana. (LaFonzo Carter Staff Photographer)

With new computer software and new ordinances, area law enforcement agencies are swooping down on those who deface property with graffiti.

Computer brain power is being harnessed to look for patterns in graffiti and link criminal acts in one jurisdiction with those miles away.

Laws are being strengthened to prohibit minors from possessing graffiti-making items - such as aerosol paint cans and etching tools - unless in a classroom setting or under the supervision of a parent or legal guardian.

More agencies are allocating more investigators to graffiti cases, and they are devoting more hours to identifying and tracking down graffiti perpetrators.

One of the most promising of the new tools is a sophisticated

San Bernardino county Sheriff's deputies, Joseph Parker, left and Oscar Godoy, discuss the deparment computer program that is used to track graffitti. (Rick Sforza/Staff Photographer)
software package developed by the Orange County Sheriff's Department that is being widely adopted in the Southland.

For officers in San Bernardino County and elsewhere, it means digital photographs of vandalism at a site in one city can be electronically linked to photographs taken at graffiti crime scenes around the Southland.

If the computer recognizes a pattern, law enforcement officials are on their way to building a much larger legal case.

Instead of charging someone with one or two acts of vandalism, the system allows cases to be built that can include dozens and dozens of crimes, officials say.

"We are looking to make that first strike," said San Bernardino County sheriff's Deputy Oscar Godoy, who is assigned to a gang unit in the department's Rancho Cucamonga station and uses Orange County's TAGRS computer software.

Godoy was referring to the first marker for the California "Three Strikes" Law, which means that people convicted of three felonies may end up facing life in prison.

Godoy and his partner, Deputy Joseph Parker, work closely with school resource officers to identify taggers.

An early step in the process is finding the moniker or signature of the perpetrator hidden inside the graffiti.

"You have to learn how to read them....It takes awhile," Godoy said. "You have to learn to think like they do."

Young perpetrators frequently carry their moniker on their school notebooks - or have their art, with its telltale signature, plastered across the walls in their bedroom at home, Parker said.

"With that evidence, it's pretty hard for them to deny the graffiti is theirs," Parker said.

The Orange County TAGRS software has 30 agencies on its system, including the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, San Bernardino Police Department and the Rialto Police Department, said John McDonald, an Orange County sheriff's spokesman.

For the city of San Bernardino, recently joining the free TAGRS system will mean a savings of $160,000 annually while Rialto will save $70,000 from what it previously had been paying an outside vendor, officials say.

Agencies across the Southland are aggressively working to recoup the cost of removing graffiti.

While assigned to the Rialto Police Department's gang unit, Officer John Candias, now a homicide detective, developed a formula for calculating the cost of removing graffiti.

And the result was that very few cases won't be a felony, based on the cost of driving a truck to the scene and the time and materials used to remove the markings.

For the Rialto Police Department, and several others contacted for this report, a digital camera automatically calculates the square footage of the markings, date and time stamps the photo, and provides coordinates to be plugged into a geographic mapping system.

Generally, a city public works crew, or a team from an outside agency contracted by a city, arrives at the graffiti site, documents what has transpired with this sophisticated camera and covers it up with paint, often after painstakingly matching the new cover-up paint with the existing color.

The photograph electronically travels to the investigative team working graffiti cases.

On the TAGRS software, the city crew member who dealt with that graffiti is listed, so that an officer can follow up to get more information if necessary, Parker said.

Southland law enforcement agencies are working to hold the culprits, and in the case of minors, their parents, responsible for damages.

Graffiti perpetrators are from two camps: gang members who use it to mark their territory or send a message to other gangs, and taggers who do the crime for glory.

For taggers, "the entire reason is for personal fame....It's all about ego," said San Bernardino police Sgt. Dwight Waldo.

"It's the only crime I know of where the entire purpose is to tell the world I did this crime," said Waldo, who has been working to catch taggers exclusively since 1991 and was the first in the country to have that assignment.

In most departments taggers are part of the gang unit's function, even though taggers, by definition, are not part of a criminal gang - and may never be.

Although an oddity a decade ago, Waldo said more municipal police departments are dedicating officers just to tagging as a way to preserve city tax revenues.

When taggers strike a business district, about 90percent of the public will think it's a sign of gang activity, said Waldo, internationally recognized expert on tagging.

And when the public enters that area, instead of focusing on what they might do there, they worry about their personal safety or the safety of their vehicle, he said.

Soon businesses will flee the area, said Waldo, who was in New Mexico last week to speak before a regional law enforcement group about tagging.

Waldo said that while most taggers are underage, predominately male, increasingly he is finding more in their 20s and 30s. The oldest person arrested was 50.

The vast majority of graffiti is called "throw ups," which are not artsy, Waldo said.

Taggers can put up their work - even complex "art" works very quickly, Waldo said, because they practice what they will do several times. They have all their supplies and plan escape routes in case police show up.

Taggers pick high visibility sites for their attacks so many people will see it. And when they are caught by police, they attain a martyrdom in their circle of fellow taggers, Waldo said.

Tagging is a problem not unique to the United States, he said. On the Internet, Waldo once saw an advertisement for a train taking taggers on a 10-day tour of major European cities.

Although much of tagging vandalism is done in the wee hours, it's not uncommon for graffiti to go up after school - between 3 and 8 p.m.

Waldo said it is not uncommon for tagging crews to move into burglary because they see the skill set that allows them to put up graffiti unseen translates into the stealth skills needed to enter a building and get away undetected.

Police contacted for this report generally view tagging as a "gateway" crime, one that often leads to more serious offenses.

Chino police Lt. Wes Simmons said his department has been treating graffiti as a key enforcement issue for many years.

"Our philosophy is that we see this as a crime which negatively impacts our community," he said.

Aggressive prosecution and pursuit of restitution for the cleanup costs may be showing up in the numbers, Simmons said.

In 2009, 343 police reports were filed for graffiti in Chino, 202 arrests were made and 194,000 square feet of graffiti was cleaned up.

In 2010, those numbers had come down to 224 reports, 118 arrests and abatement of less than 100,000 square feet.

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