Has it come to jail time to wipe out graffiti?
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Like the city of San Francisco, North Beach resident Micki Jones is fighting a losing battle against graffiti.
"I paint it over and it is usually tagged again in 48 hours," said Jones, who covers up graffiti on her home and other buildings on her block. "It used to be weeks, but now those guys are out there every night."
When it comes to symbolic statements about a city, nothing speaks louder than the painted scrawls on walls. They say a neighborhood is either unwilling, or unable, to stop vandalism. Graffiti infuriates homeowners, degrades streets and undercuts civil pride.
And yet it happens over and over in San Francisco and has for years. How is that possible? The answers range from the economic downturn (less enforcement), to a lack of consequences (offenders aren't taken seriously in the courts), to simple fatigue (why paint over the tags when they are back the next day?)
This isn't a minor problem. The "broken window" theory continues to prove to be true. The theory says each broken window or graffiti tag is a test to see if anyone cares enough to fix it. San Francisco is failing the test.
"As soon as the first tag goes up all bets are off," said Christopher Putz, the city's graffiti abatement officer. "It's like a dog lifting its leg. After the first one does it, every other dog has to tinkle there, too."
Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of operations for the Department of Public Works, often hears from angry residents at community meetings, but it's those who have given up on fighting graffiti that he remembers best.
"It is very hard to see some 75- or 80-year-old lady almost in tears because someone has vandalized her house and she can't do anything about it," Nuru said.
Public frustration has grown since a 2004 law made property owners responsible for cleaning up graffiti in 30 days or face a fine that could reach $500. Owners complained that it made the victims pay for the crime. Others said that the city ran out of money to pay attorneys to enforce the ordinance.
That's not to say nothing is being done. Putz said that arrests are up this year and are likely to surpass 2008's record total of 234. Complaints to the city's 311 hot line have increased dramatically. And on April 23 the Graffiti Advisory Board - a 25-member group that includes residents, business leaders and city officials - will host a
community meeting at the Hilton on Kearny Street to discuss new ways to fight the problem.
Still, it's hard to disagree with Jones, who has been painting over graffiti in North Beach for 19 years.
"This is a beautiful city," Jones said, "and it is getting trashed."
Nuru, who lives in Bayview-Hunters Point, was incensed last week when a freeway sign near the entrance to his neighborhood was rendered unreadable by taggers.
"I totally lost it," he said. "What I am suspecting is that the vandals are moving more in groups now. We have seen patterns of taggers going in groups to deface property."
Putz, who has worked with graffiti abatement for over five years, doesn't necessarily think there are more taggers nowadays. But he is frustrated with the lack of consequences for those who are caught literally red-handed.
"I've had kids tell me that they wouldn't try it in Daly City because that's San Mateo County and they are treated pretty harshly by the courts," Putz said.
That's seconded by Officer Troy Courtney, who was the city's graffiti expert for seven years. Asked why some other cities, like Seattle, don't seem to have much tagging, Courtney is blunt.
"You know why?" he asked. "Because in Seattle the first time you get caught you spend six months in jail."
San Francisco taggers are more likely to get off with community service or probation. That's a problem because, as is the case with other quality-of-life crimes, a small minority is causing a majority of the problems.
Putz has pushed for a single San Francisco judge to be assigned all graffiti cases so he or she could get familiar with the offenders. But, he said, "nobody wants to be the graffiti judge."
And finally, there is a school of thought that believes this is art, not a public nuisance. Courtney said taggers come from all over the world to take photos of the San Francisco graffiti murals celebrated on Internet sites and in books.
"It's like collecting baseball cards," Courtney said.
For residents like Jones, that's going to be tough to sell.
"I don't care if you are Michelangelo," she said. "If you don't have permission to write on my building, don't do it."
C.W. Nevius' column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail him at email@example.com.