Graffiti taggers could face a much bigger price tag
Graffiti in San Francisco is a mess - literally and figuratively. That's not a scoop, it is merely a discouraging reality.
It begins with the city being a mecca for spray paint vandals from across the country. (Check YouTube.) It continues to the criminal courts, where, when taggers are finally caught red- (or yellow- or green-) handed, they are generally treated as misguided youths and given community service instead of meaningful punishment.
And then there's the final insult. Property owners who have their buildings tagged - sometimes daily - are ordered by the city to clean up the mess themselves or face a fine or even a lien on their property.
"It cost me $15,000 to clean up my building last year," says Laurance Mathews, who owns the building at 245 Van Ness, which, ironically, houses a paint store. The Department of Public Works had a mural painted on his building to try to stop the tagging, "but since they did the tagging increased from a few times a week to several times a day. And there's not a damn thing you can do about it."
A new strategy
Well, maybe there is. It's just a start, and Mathews is skeptical, but Supervisor London Breed has announced a citywide graffiti plan that might begin to turn the tide.
And no, I'm not just saying that because Breed's office says they got the idea from a column I wrote last October about the success of an innovative program in San Diego.
"This is about law and order," Breed said. "I've been getting complaints about this since I have been in office. It has been happening in San Francisco for generations. This is the first step."
If it's been happening for years and years, what's going to change? The answer is that the new plan will use the taggers' trademark against them. After all, they are basically signing their name everywhere they spray paint their mark.
So instead of bringing a suspect to court on a single count, authorities hope to collect dozens of examples of the same tag all over town. They will then bring a folder of examples to civil court, where the burden of proof is lower than in criminal court.
"Up until now," says City Attorney Dennis Herrera, "it was very difficult to go after the perpetrator. We have to be more creative, establish a pattern."
San Diego program
Results in San Diego have been remarkable. Rather than trying to get jail time for the taggers in criminal court, the city sets a cost to clean up or paint over the tags and then uses civil court to get an award for restitution. The tagger, or his family, can be hit with some big bills.
"The beauty of the system is we don't get the guy with one tag for $250," said Victor Barr, San Diego County deputy district attorney when I talked to him last fall. "We are able to build these cases up to $5,000 and up. When you can show 50 tags or 100 tags, suddenly the judge and the public defender take it a lot more seriously."
That's the plan in San Francisco. Members of the police force, the Municipal Transportation Agency (tagging on buses is a huge problem), and the Department of Public Works will all be asked to photograph tags with smart phones and send the images to the city's SF311 phone app. Ordinary citizens are encouraged to download the app and participate.
"So once we catalog all the tags, when they make an arrest they will be able to recoup the costs," says Mohammed Nuru, director of the DPW.
"This will give some hope that we are going after the vandals and making them pay. It can be expensive. Some of these buildings are historic, and you have to redo the entire facade. Once you have to pay, no one will want to do it again."
Breed's proposal needs to pass the Board of Supervisors, but c'mon, who is in favor of tagging? Not Breed, who says she isn't just theorizing, she's getting involved.
"I had to call the police last night," she said Thursday. "There was a guy and a girl in front of my house. They tagged the sidewalk, the tree, the concrete. I couldn't believe it was happening."