In that vein, a terrific article in ComputerWorld ("Do surveillance cameras detect criminals or deter crime?," Jan. 8) focuses on the nexus between two topics that have preoccupied this blog at different junctures - graffiti and security cameras - describing cutting edge technology that supposedly "detects 'graffiti-related motion,' snaps pictures and e-mails them to the police." Writes CW's Scott Berinato:
Berinato predicts a similar result with Graffiti Cams. There are simply too many potential surfaces to police, he says, and taggers simply become more sophisticated in response to enforcement. He then makes an argument whose logic is rooted in the world of computer security, but which offers an irresistible appeal, to me, for confronting graffiti and vandalism crimes:
At only $5,000 per camera, Graffiti Cam seems like a home run. It arrives at a time when public surveillance has gained tacit, creeping acceptance and when graffiti has become a $12 billion migraine for cities and towns--a kind of aerosol spam that they desperately want to scotch because it's bad for business. Social scientists call this the broken windows theory: Vandalism leads people to sense a place is unsafe and broken down, so they leave, which in turn makes the place actually become unsafe and broken down. Reality follows perception.
So it won't be surprising if cities and towns buy dozens of Graffiti Cams. And those cameras will likely lead to a surge in arrests and convictions of the spray-paint-wielding set, known in current slang as taggers.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely that arrest and conviction of those taggers will actually reduce tagging.
Why? Because Graffiti Cam is a detection mechanism, and while detection is good for stopping criminals, it's not terribly good at stopping crime, especially when the crime in question is one where opportunity is virtually ubiquitous, like vandalism.
Or spam, which provides a nice analogy to graffiti. When notorious accused spammer Robert Soloway was arrested last summer, some good guys suggested that other spammers would now think twice before going into the mass e-mail business, and that consumers could see a noticeable decrease in their junk e-mail.
But less than three months later, spam had surged to an all-time high. What's more, the spammers who filled the void left by Soloway learned from his mistakes and developed new strategies and techniques to avoid his fate. The arrest had zero positive impact on the fight against spam.
It can be argued that detection is actually counterproductive. The thief must be tried and put on probation. A tagger convicted in Boston last summer was fined $10,000 and had his license revoked, reducing his job prospects and increasing the likelihood he will need public assistance, use bad credit, resort to more crime or end up in jail, which also costs money.
Most confounding of all, detection, by definition, must allow the crime to start taking place. Otherwise there's nothing to detect. Hidden cameras still allow paint to get on the wall, which happens to be by far the most expensive aspect of the graffiti problem: the cleanup. An average city spends about $2 per citizen yearly whitewashing graffiti; nationwide, yearly graffiti cleanup costs may be as high as $12 billion, according to Justice Department statistics reported by graffitihurts.org -- a partnership between the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful and The Sherwin Williams Company, which makes Krylon spray paints.
Deterrence, on the other hand -- creating an environment that's inhospitable to the criminal act in the first place -- is a smarter, more efficient strategy than catching bad guys. If a detected tagger still leaves cleanup behind, a deterred tagger reduces cleanup costs to zero.
In fact, studies show that the most effective deterrent to tagging is immediate removal of new graffiti. If a city or town consistently removes graffiti within 24 to 48 hours of its application, repeat incidents at those spots approach zero.
Berinato describes a discipline "called CPTED -- criminal prevention through environmental design -- under which studies have shown that space can be engineered to reduce the likelihood of criminal activity." He also suggests sentencing taggers who are caught to rapid response cleanup crews to eliminate uninvited tagging, a strategy I've promoted before on this blog.At the end of the day, he writes, "Maybe it's time to spend less pursuing the criminal and more pursuing the crime." Agreed. Berinato's piece is an excellent introduction to alternative, pro-active strategies that prevent crime instead of just reacting to it.
See related Grits' posts on graffiti law and policy solutions:
- Toward a restorative graffiti policy
- Graffiti, art, vandalism and subversion
- Graffiti solutions: A cost-benefit analysis
- Paint responsibly: Museum offers hands-on graffiti exhibit
- Adidas: Graffiti is legitimate art
- Graffiti on the brain and around the world
- Digital graffiti, or, Is there something to a wall that wants us to write on it?
- R.I.P. Victor Montano: Houston graffiti artist
- Can you be arrested for public knitting?
- Amarillo PD pressures businesses to file graffiti charges
- Out of our minds: Isn't felony graffiti overkill for sixth graders?
- Charging graffiti as a state jail felony?
See also these Grits posts on the relation between cameras and crime: