Once again government finds itself in a catch-22 with respect to petty crimes committed by many individuals, similar to the dilemma it faces in the drug war. The "trail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em" model works no better for reducing graffiti than pot smoking. After all, how many drug offenders quit for good after being arrested and prosecuted? You can expect no greater percentage to change their ways for petty crimes like graffiti, where incarceration serves little real, tangible deterrent because the likelihood of being caught is low.
A 10-month investigation led to the arrest of 18 people on graffiti-related charges.
An Austin Police Department detective carried out the investigation in an effort to charge those responsible, and cut down on property damage. It helped identify 130 suspects and at least two dozen graffiti gangs.
Police have worked together with citizens, neighborhood associations and business groups to identify new graffiti and identify taggers.
"In the past there was not a good way to identify them; and with the help of the neighborhoods and the people getting involved, it really enabled it,” Det. Kevin Bartles said. “Up until this point a lot of people had given up on it and they just accepted it.”
In 2007, the graffiti abatement unit painted over more than 16,000 pieces of graffiti in Austin.
It's estimated that graffiti in Austin causes more than half-a-million dollars in damage every year.
The pasteup art at left, via Dirty Third Streets, was part of quite a bit of graff that went up in Austin the week following APD's big graffiti bust, so the deterrent effect of APD's sweep so far appears minimal.
Think how many resources were expended to achieve this result compared to the benefit: Even when announcing its "success" at busting 18 people, APD admits there are another 112 it knows about but cannot find evidence to arrest after a 10 month investigation.
Not only is arresting taggers hard to accomplish, using the justice system to punish graffiti feeds into the egos and anti-authoritarian presentiments of the tagger crowd. Austin PD claims to have identified 130 different taggers by their styles including the 18 they arrested, a feat which taggers must view on its face is a compliment - that somebody's paying enough attention to parse their stuff that closely. Playing cat and mouse with law enforcement feeds into a cycle of gamesmanship taggers enjoy, and bored teens with a spray can will inevitably win those matchups, just because there are too many of them and police have better things to do. My guess is APD has not identified close to all of Austin's taggers. Not long ago Corpus Christi police claimed to have identified more than 100 taggers in that much smaller town, and Austin is filled with graffiti and pasteup art.
Despite the aggregate cost of property damage, it's still hard for me to view an individual, isolated graffiti act as felonious, and anyway, it's a fool's errand to try to stop graffiti by taking graff writers "off the streets." There are too many of them, they're too hard to catch, and the penalties don't keep them behind bars long enough to matter, even when a felony is charged, because prisons are overcrowded with much more dangerous folks.
I've argued before that a misdemeanor charge is plenty, particularly if cities combine arrests with two additional approaches: Immediate cleanup and provision of public spaces to young artists.
Like several other Texas cities, Austin is putting significant resources into graffiti cleanup which is a bigger deterrent when done immediately, than the (remote) possibility of punishment. Graff writers will become discouraged if a night of fun and risk results in driving by the next day and seeing their work already removed. Part of the fun for graff writers is to see how long their work can "ride" at a given spot; as public policy matter it's best if that is a matter of hours instead of days or longer (Call 311 in Austin to request graffiti cleanup.)
The rapid cleanup approach can be implemented with much more certainty than punishment of the individual through the judicial system. Austin cleans up 16,000 graffiti sites per year, which doesn't get all of it but amounts to 43 sites per day, a significant effort. The city gets a lot of additional bang for the buck, IMO, when it spends money on cleanup compared to the cost of a criminal investigation. (Eighteen arrests resulting from more than 16,000 crimes isn't a very good ratio.)
The piece Austin doesn't do as well on is providing support and public spaces for young artists - not the scrawled gang tags, but those with real artistic talent, of which there are more than a few among graff writers, possibly even among those arrested. Austin should do a better job of giving them would-be graff writers legal and publicly acceptable outlets. In Australia, Europe, Mexico, and a few US cities including El Paso communities have made efforts to draw talented young artists out of the shadows, giving them legal graff spots or even turning over entire blocks to street artists (with residents' permission and cooperation).
We live in an information age where graphic artists' skills are in high demand. Hell, even the city routinely needs those services. To prosecute youthful talent instead of cultivate it IMO misses an opportunity.
All this to say, I'm mostly encouraged by Austin's approach. It's good to arrest the most frequent offenders, if you can catch them, and I'm glad the city council's commitment to funding graffiti cleanup is showing results. But if the police department spent ten months identifying 130 individual taggers and a couple dozen tagger crews but still can't arrest most of them, maybe they should try letting the Parks Department or some youth services division attempt to open lines of communication. In addition to enforcement and cleanup, I'd like to see the city creating legal venues around town and more opportunities for young artists.
That approach won't work with every graff writer, but whenever it does it'd be cheaper and more effective than prosecuting and jailing them by a country mile, not to mention generate more public art in invited spaces.
See past related Grits' posts:
- Toward a restorative graffiti policy
- Graffiti solutions: A cost benefit analysis
- Creating public spaces for invited art adds carrot to stick of banning uninvited graff
- Mexico prevents graffiti by encouraging it at Azteca stadium
- Moscow turns to invited graffiti to liven up Soviet era buildings
- Paint Responsibly: Museum offers hands on graffiti exhibit