Art form to some, nuisance and even threat to many others, graffiti is a problem in countless American communities. It drives down property values and retail traffic; according to the U.S. Department of Justice, it costs business owners, governments and taxpayers between $12-15 billion annually to remove it, prosecute the offenders, and pay other associated costs.
An estimated $5-10 million of that sum is spent in Orange County (Calif.), where graffiti removal alone cost the county transportation authority (OCTA) more than $283,000 in 2007. That marked a 40-percent increase in two years.
To reduce the problem, OCTA worked together with the Orange County Sheriff's Department/Transit Police Services. The solution: a database called the Tracking Automated Graffiti Reporting System (TAGRS). A free-to-law-enforcement tool, TAGRS uses Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) data to store and track graffiti incidents, making it easier for various entities to report, police to share, and prosecutors to build their cases against individual taggers.
By 2009, two years after TAGRS was implemented, graffiti removal cost less than $170,000, and OCTA saved about $114,000 because of the reduction in staff time spent on data input and other related activities.
Jason Chamness, a gang officer with the Costa Mesa (Calif.) Police Department, says that although the city is relatively small -- 16 square miles -- it was nearly impossible for police to track more than 500 graffiti incidents per month. "Our records management system is not set up to handle and manage the type of data needed to track and build large graffiti vandalism cases," he says. "Before TAGRS, every time I made an arrest, I could be sure that the subject was good for 50 other cases -- but I had no way to track cases or file them unless I went through piles of paperwork from all the other incidents. This was simply inefficient."
TAGRS' real-time search capabilities, he adds, offered a way not just to track but also to analyze incidents for prosecution. The end result for Costa Mesa: in the five months since TAGRS' implementation, Chamness' 10 "arrests of interest" and 250 cleared cases resulted in $35,000 worth of restitution. (He made other arrests, but says those were small -- just two or three cases apiece.)
In neighboring Fountain Valley, police have discovered an additional, proactive aspect of TAGRS. "We have a civilian employee reviewing each case in an effort to develop suspect information," says Lt. Mike Simko, commander of FVPD's detective bureau. "When we arrest someone for graffiti, she assists officers in searching TAGRS for their moniker name and connecting them to other graffiti crimes."
Simko says being able to file multiple cases increases the chance and the amount of restitution. Chamness agrees. "In the past, district attorneys would combine all the cases, but these are standalone acts. Whether felonies or misdemeanors, each is a separate case," he says. "TAGRS allows us to build and file many individual cases, and package them in such a way that DAs are more likely to prosecute." One of his pending arrests is an individual with 75 to 80 cases.
How TAGRS works
TAGRS receives its data from two main sources: government entities such as public transportation and public works, and crime reports. Government employees access TAGRS through an Internet portal, using their smartphone, digital camera or PDA to input graffiti information including address, amount of damage, photos of the graffiti and the date and time it was discovered. Law enforcement officers input their information via the agency's secure intranet, while a public Internet portal allows anonymous tips.
Then the information is sent to the investigator or analyst designated to handle graffiti offenses -- one person in each bureau or division, which ensures consistency. In the case of a crime report, the designated officer may be responsible for filling in information such as damage amount, the tagger's moniker and gang name, and other information including known associates, personal images, address, vehicle description and phone number.