Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Reduce graffiti by pursuing the crime, not the criminal

Since I first read Bruce Schneier's books, particularly Beyond Fear, I've come to believe that the world of computer security offers tremendously valuable lessons for maintaining public safety and security in the real world, particularly with its focus on preventing and/or minimizing harm instead of only reacting to harmful agents after the fact.

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:

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.

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:
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 -- 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

See also these Grits posts on the relation between cameras and crime:


Anonymous said...

Once the $5000 camera is in place, it will take only a few shots from a paintball gun, at 6 cents a shot, to defeat it. Using frozen paintballs, one shot could knock out the camera and possibly damage it beyond repair.

The smart move is to invest in the manufacturer and make money fleecing the sheep.

Anonymous said...

I recall a problem solving session related to how to prevent theft.

Various ideas were presented, stronger locks, security guards and so on. Then someone spoke up and said "get rid of the thieves". A great idea!

I strongly agree that discouragremoving the tagger by removing any reward for the effort is the best approach!

Anonymous said...

Is there something wrong with me if I like graffiti? Maybe its because I'm a renter.

Anonymous said...

Grasping for straws, Scott, IMO. Typical Evil Empire/lefty response.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What's grasping at straws? What are you talking about?

Anonymous said...


I submit the following quote from D. George Beto, former prison director and faculty member at Sam Houston state University:

"The history of corrections is the history of movement - movement from one undocumented fad to another."

I rest my case.

Plato of the South Plains

Gritsforbreakfast said...


The latest undocumented fad has been mass incarceration on a scale that would have seemed unimaginable in "Walking George's" time. If I recall his tenure as director ended in the early '70s. According to the Handbook of Texas, "During the middle of the 1970s the state incarcerated felons at a rate of 143.7 per 100,000." (None of those, btw, were graffiti artists.)

Today we incarcerate at a rate of 1,035 per 100,000, and climbing. I seriously doubt George Beto would approve.

Anonymous said...

Well - I do tend to agree with you regarding all the changes between Dr. Beto's tenure and today, but, as my ol' mama used to say: "Two wrongs don't make a right."


Gritsforbreakfast said...

So what should be done about graffiti crime, Plato? You've never said whether you like the graffiti cams (which apparently can be defeated with a 6 cent paint ball).

If you prefer the Beto-era approach, where harsh, carceral punishment wasn't the solution to graffiti, and you don't like the solutions I've suggested, then ... what ... do you think jailing graff writers will stop it? We already KNOW that's very expensive and doesn't work!

Talk about an "undocumented fad"!

The other difference between today and Beto's era is that more policies' success or failure is documented, with evidence gathered and evaluated as a more routine part of program design. The phrase "evidence based practices" would have been a joke in US corrections 25 years ago, but a couple of decades of data gathering and analysis of different real-world approaches have changed that mightily.

It's the lock-em-up folks, IMO, who're touting baseless, "undocumented" approaches when it comes to petty vandalism and non-violent crime.

Tomcatdad said...

"He also suggests sentencing taggers who are caught to rapid response cleanup crews to eliminate uninvited tagging,.."
How do they clean up etched storefront windows? I still support corperal punishment for some crimes. A quick public caining and your done. You want more, grab a spray-can....

Graffiti Task Force said...

To solve the graffiti problem, the legislature must allow SOME graffiti acts to be treated not as a crime but as a civil case, much like a parking ticket.

Equal justice for graffiti vandals is the first step. Only then do Restorative Justice programs become an option.