Vandalists were here

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.

Investigative value

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.

"Upon the discovery of a graffiti suspect identity, the information will be added to TAGRS," explains Ramin Aminloo, the system's developer. "Any future searches of TAGRS might reveal or uncover further graffiti incidents involving the same suspect." If an agency is connected to its county jail system, investigators can use mug shots and inmate information, too.

Auto complete fields, lookup tables and drop-down menus enable officers and other government employees to finish reporting quickly and efficiently.

Not only does TAGRS provide reports on individuals; it also reports on cost analysis and graffiti trends. A reporting feature includes GIS mapping, which uses GPS coordinates to generate a map of the incident area so investigators and shift commanders can see hotspots.

Integrated intelligence

In addition to jail records management systems, CAD or RMS data can be used. TAGRS' programmers build custom interfaces to make the system work with proprietary solutions -- including LINX and COPLINK, intelligence systems in use in southern California. Because TAGRS is specialized graffiti tracking meant to help other city agencies in addition to law enforcement, it only pushes certain information -- suspect name and moniker -- to the intelligence software, rather than pulling information from it or providing every detail to those systems. Otherwise Aminloo says the systems would be too redundant.

In addition, e-mail support within TAGRS enables investigators to share information. This detail may seem trivial, but previously investigators had to use the phone and often ended up playing phone tag with each other. Contact information for every designated graffiti investigator in the various agencies is included, along with a general bulletin board for more widespread information sharing among agencies on the system.

Finally, a graffiti analysis service is available from contractors who, though they do not have direct access to TAGRS intelligence, work with the law enforcement agencies that hire them.

Use outside OCSD

A number of other law enforcement and public works agencies use TAGRS such as the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, CALTRANS, and numerous smaller agencies and public works departments.

Because the system is free, law enforcement agencies do not have to purchase their own servers for data storage. Instead Aminloo says regional nodes (typically located in each county) have their own servers. "All smaller police departments can connect to a major node, but it is all up to the individual agency how they use TAGRS. They can share with other agencies and split the cost," he explains. This arrangement is similarly modeled to other intelligence systems, as is the agency's ability to restrict access to information viewed by other agencies.

In Costa Mesa, for example, the gang investigation unit is tied to the OCSD node. "We only analyze our own cases," says Chamness. "But we have access to incidents from all the other cities." Because prosecutions take place at the county level, the ability to establish victims from any jurisdiction in the county is important. (Outside the county, Chamness notes the suspect would be tried where the crime was committed, which can become complicated.)

TAGRS programmers customize the system according to each jurisdiction's needs, including by request. Chamness says this works to the system's advantage because it incorporates the needs of prosecutors and law enforcement at various levels. In addition to integration with CAD, RMS or other systems, the system can incorporate custom graffiti removal costs.

Training takes about 2 hours. Chamness together with two public works abatement specialists learned how to use handheld devices to enter and upload pictures and data.

In Fountain Valley, TAGRS improved public works' documentation process. Simko says previously the city's abatement specialist had to hand write information, and police would have to sift through those paper records to make cases. They were also duplicating efforts, with public works documenting for removal purposes, and police documenting for victims.

TAGRS eliminated the need for patrol officers to take reports based on cold calls, and because its civilian analyst references field interview cards in relation to the database, investigators have less background work to do. Involving the SRO means the chance of finding solutions other than jail time, while the analyst's liaison relationships with other agencies means she can identify whether gangs or taggers are responsible, further enhancing investigators' efficiency.

Overall, TAGRS significantly reduces investigative time -- an estimated 40-180 hours cut in half, according to OCSD Transit Police Services. On the other hand, says Chamness, subjects are starting to get wise to investigators' tactics. "When we started using the system, people confessed immediately because of all the evidence, but we've started to see people denying they were there," he explains. "So we're now having to back up TAGRS evidence with other investigative tools."

Still he says, out of all the graffiti tracking databases that exist, he likes TAGRS because of its integration and flexibility. It means that not only can law enforcement effectively catch criminals, but public works and transportation abatement efforts are not in vain.

Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in law enforcement and digital forensics and can be reached at