Graffiti judged low priority in S.F.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Five years ago, Gideon Kramer was thrilled to be appointed to San Francisco's graffiti advisory board.
"I really thought I could make a difference," the graphic designer and 30-year city resident said Friday.
Three years into it, he resigned in disgust. He said he'd rather spend his time volunteering to help landscape local schools, as he does now. It wasn't just that graffiti was popping up faster than it could be painted over - it was that people had given up.
"People would say, 'Why do you bother? It's just going to be back tomorrow,' " he said.
San Francisco doesn't have a graffiti problem. It has a commitment problem. It isn't enough to get a few residents riled up about neighborhood taggers, or to get the police and district attorney's office to commit resources. This is an issue that extends all the way to the bench of Superior Court.
David Chiu, president of the Board of Supervisors, is among those who think local judges don't see graffiti cases as very important.
"Where I think the battle is now," said Chiu, a former city prosecutor, "is that, when dealing with a crushing case load, there are judges who still look at this as not a high priority. Judges are not pushing for more sentences."
Instead, local judges seem more likely to strike concessions that will clear their calendar for more-serious cases. Taggers like the idea of "civil compromise" in which a tagger pays for the damages. Until recently, with a cash payment they not only avoided a misdemeanor vandalism charge, there was no community service requirement.
Presiding Superior Court Judge James McBride said the judges are willing to take the blame "if people are being convicted and we are not meting out appropriate punishment." He concedes that "the system in general tends to diminish property crimes compared to crimes of violence." But he doesn't think the judges are seeing that many graffiti cases.
Until recently that was true because the civil compromise option allowed offenders to bypass the court system. In response, state Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, crafted a bill that established a city pilot project requiring offenders to perform at least 24 hours of graffiti cleanup if they opt for community compromise. The pilot program will be in effect until January 2012.
But, like everything else involving graffiti enforcement, getting Ma's bill approved was a long, difficult process. The fact is, taggers have a huge advantage in this battle. Scrawling on a wall is easy. Stopping it is a Sisyphean task, particularly in San Francisco.
It begins with catching someone in the act.
"Unless you are right there, at that moment, you can't charge someone," Chiu said. "So most people don't get caught."
But even when they do, there are plenty of hurdles. This week a couple wrote to me about their experience in the South of Market neighborhood. Spotting four taggers in the process of marking a wall, they called 911 and the police caught two people in front of the ink-stained wall, markers in hand.
The couple (who asked not to be identified) said the police told them that one of the suspected culprits was a previous offender. Great, right? Then police told them there was a catch.
The cops didn't see the crime happening, so it would have to be a citizen's arrest. That meant the couple would have to help direct the case through the D.A.'s office. Also, the officer said, if these guys are found innocent, and there are liability issues - if the taggers file a false arrest lawsuit, for instance, the couple could be responsible.
That did it. The possibility of being sued for turning in the taggers was too much. They told the cops to let the two suspects go.
There is a school of thought that says graffiti is just a sign of the times, that all major cities are having the same problems. But that really isn't true. This city is consistently more lenient. In fact, one of the objections to Ma's bill was that this was a statewide solution to San Francisco's problem.
The idea of a "graffiti judge," who would hear all the tagger cases, is a step in the right direction. So is making Ma's bill more than just a pilot program. We should also look at Los Angeles, where the city attorney and a councilman are pushing an ordinance that would have the city taking the taggers and their parents to civil court to demand payment for damages. Also, Chiu will be introducing a bill he said will toughen the requirement that owners of vacant buildings keep them up and remove graffiti.Those are all good ideas, Kramer said, but after arguing for the graffiti judge idea for years and getting nowhere, he's not optimistic.
"San Francisco does not have a history of sticking with anything for long," he said. "We see a big photo opportunity and two or three months later it is gone."
Only the graffiti remains.
C.W. Nevius' column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.