Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.
The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.
Graffiti is not solely a police problem. The police role should be one of support and assistance. Effective responses to graffiti may combine management practices, design and maintenance, and involve the general public, individual victims, criminal justice officials such as prosecutors and judges, and others. Responses to graffiti should be comprehensive and coordinated, while costs and available resources should be carefully evaluated.
Responses to graffiti must be thorough and consistent, as some offenders may be highly opportunistic, adaptive and tenacious. Responses should include ways to monitor graffiti and address changes in time, location and methods of applying it.
Rapid identification and removal of graffiti has been shown to reduce its occurrence.† This approach directly addresses the motives of many offenders by reducing the notoriety associated with graffiti's visibility. The two-step process involves routine monitoring to quickly spot graffiti, and rapid removal of the graffiti. In New York's successful approach to transit graffiti, it was initially removed within two hours of identification.†† In St. Petersburg, Fla., business owners are required to remove graffiti within 48 hours.16
† This "law of diminishing vandalism" is that persistence in cleaning up pays off. See SloanHowitt and Kelling (1990); Scott (1989); Cheetham (1994); Clarke (1978) [PDF]; and Governing (1994).
†† If graffiti cannot be removed quickly, trains are taken out of service. For train stations, graffiti is removed within 72 hours. Similar quick cleanups have occurred in Philadelphia (Scott 1989). In London, graffiti is cleaned from large stations within 24 hours.
† Police usually encourage citizens to call 911 regarding graffiti in progress; they discourage citizens from confronting offenders. Citizens can report graffiti not in progress to hotlines.
Some jurisdictions pay graffiti reporters' cell phone charges. In London, people can use free telephones in transit stations to report offenses. In other jurisdictions, transit riders are encouraged to report graffiti and offenders. Numerous jurisdictions offer a cash reward of $200 to $1,000 if a tip leads to a conviction.
In some jurisdictions, graffiti reports may be suppressed due to concerns about retaliation by gang members or taggers. Widespread public participation in both open and anonymous reporting usually addresses these concerns, but police should be aware of this potential problem.
The experiences of the New York City Transit System illustrate varying approaches to graffiti. Graffiti began to appear on subway trains in the 1960s; by 1970, it was a huge problem. The public was fearful, and ridership on trains declined.
The motive for the graffiti was "getting up" and getting noticed; there were no indications the graffiti was gang-related. Instead, the graffitists or taggers sought to build their reputation through the sheer quantity of their graffiti. As competition among them increased, they distinguished themselves through writing style, embellishment, graffiti size, and location — either in unusual spots or in previously unmarked spots. One prolific vandal produced 10,000 graffiti markings.
Despite the severity of its ongoing fiscal crisis, New York City adopted a variety of anti-graffiti strategies in the 1970s: punishing offenders by making them clean up trains marked with graffiti; using fencing with razor wires to protect the vast train yards; and developing materials to ease graffiti removal, materials that were later found to be environmentally hazardous. The methods all failed to substantially reduce the amount of graffiti.
In 1984, the city adopted a system to monitor trains and clean those marked with graffiti within two hours; otherwise, they took the cars out of service. They also began to store clean trains in highly secure yards that featured 24-hour-a-day work crews, enhanced lighting, routine fence maintenance, and undercover police. The initiative focused on the most problematic times, locations and train lines; initially, all trains were monitored, but random checks were later successfully used to maintain clean trains. In addition, repeat offenders were targeted for parental contact and enhanced penalties.
In contrast to the earlier initiatives, this anti-graffiti effort began with a handful of trains (those detected with graffiti) and built up to cover the entire system. Importantly, rather than focusing on using the criminal justice system, this approach addressed the offenders' underlying motives. Immediately removing graffiti-marked trains from service severely limited the vandals' exposure.
† The type of surface graffiti is placed on is a major factor because graffiti-removal products may damage some surfaces. The type of marking agent is also a factor: some paints are reversible. There is a wide range of graffiti removal products available, including chemical sprays, aerosols, gels, and poultices. Cleaners are either alkaline or acidic; the latter can damage masonry, and neutralizing techniques must be incorporated when using either. Physical removal methods include low- and high-pressure water cleaning, often with detergents, and sandblasting. Physical removal is more expensive, and is typically used for large areas where other methods have failed.There are four major types of removal or cover-ups:
The source of labor for removing graffiti may vary. Cleanup squads may consist of volunteers, employees or adjudicated offenders. Graffiti removal may be coercive. A large number of jurisdictions hold the property owner responsible for graffiti removal. Sanctioning victims requires that they clean graffiti up quickly or get fined.17 Citizens may get paint or physical assistance from volunteers, if needed. Cities can use nuisance ordinances, zoning codes or graffiti ordinances to force owners to clean up quickly, which may be necessary for absentee owners. Alternatively, some cities clean up graffiti and then bill the owner. Some cities do the first cleanup for free; the owner then has responsibility for subsequent cleanups.
Numerous jurisdictions use graffiti removal as a court-ordered sanction for offenders and other misdemeanants. In some jurisdictions, such sanctions require victim restitution, reflecting a restorative justice approach.
Because graffiti offenders usually operate in darkness, where there is little chance of being seen, few are apprehended. Increasing the likelihood of their being detected increases the risk of apprehension.
† Some of these products may produce toxic fumes in case of fire.
†† These coatings must be reapplied; the surface dissolves when graffiti is cleaned off.
††† These surfaces are harder to mark, but are difficult to clean.
† These washable walls are used in larger London train stations.
†† The alternative, polycarbonate surfaces become hazy.
Some materials cannot be effectively protected from graffiti. Graffiti-prone surfaces can be replaced with standard-sized, inexpensive materials. These include transparent, replaceable glass or polycarbonate panels in bus shelters, and replaceable polycarbonate covering signs.
††† Some of these measures impose social costs by making areas look like war zones. Access controls with forbidding appearances may be better left to isolated areas.
In some cases, signs have been moved out of reach of vandals, while bus stops and other frequently vandalized targets have been relocated. Environmental design to limit access to graffiti surfaces can best be incorporated into planning and construction, but may also be adapted to existing structures. An example of effective environmental design is the recessed walls of the Washington, D.C., metro system; subway walls are physically separated from the public.
Police or security patrols, guards and dogs may supplement access control. Access to residential or commercial properties may be restricted to those with resident or employee identification cards, while visitor access may be controlled through entry phones.
Much like environmental design, situational design reduces the opportunity for graffiti. The absence of toilets, seating, fast food, and lockers in transit stations effectively discourages potential offenders from loitering. In Hong Kong, a limited life to transit tickets encourages people to quickly move through stations before their tickets expire, thus discouraging loitering. In Washington, D.C., the subway system generally closes at midnight on weekdays and somewhat later on weekends, thus limiting opportunities for vandalism. Since graffiti often takes place late at night, limiting hours reduces opportunities for vandalism at times when there are typically few other riders or employees to deter the offender or witness the offense.
Some graffiti offenders are prolific; a small group typically accounts for a large portion of all offenses. Efforts that focus on chronic offenders show promise. Chronic offenders can be identified through graffiti investigations. Since offenders tend to replicate their graffiti, it has unique characteristics, like a signature, and different incidents or tags can be linked to a single offender. Some taggers practice their tags in notebooks or take photographs to document their efforts; these may be used as evidence to link offenders to graffiti incidents.
Some police conduct surveillance of known offenders and/or high-risk hot spots, collaborate with schools to detect offenders, and monitor chronic offenders, particularly those on probation. Police may use extensive intelligence databases to record information about graffiti content, locations and offenders. Such databases may include photographs or video of graffiti, mug shots of offenders, and maps of graffiti locations.
Numerous responses have been incorporated into efforts to control graffiti. Most have not been carefully evaluated, and are thus of unknown effectiveness. Any response can be effective if it increases the difficulties of offending and reduces the rewards for it. Many responses, however, are quite difficult to enforce.
Controlling graffiti tools. A number of jurisdictions have tried to control the tools used for graffiti. Boston and other cities have banned the sale of large, wide-tipped markers. In addition, bans on spray paint sales to minors have been widely used in recent years.† Some jurisdictions require stores to be licensed for and to limit spray paint sales, and require buyers to furnish their name and address. In some jurisdictions, juvenile possession of spray paint or large, indelible markers without supervision is a misdemeanor.
† Chicago has had such a ban since 1980.
Efforts have been made to reduce shoplifting of spray paint by placing stock away from exits and removing it from open displays. Instead, stock is often stored behind counters, in storerooms or in locked display cases. Some jurisdictions require stores to place markers in full view of clerks. Industry efforts have also been made to regulate graffiti tools. Spray valves can be modified, and restricted-use caps limited, so that offenders cannot change caps.†† Some jurisdictions encourage proper disposal of contractor painting materials so that graffiti offenders cannot access them.
†† Graffiti offenders prefer interchangeable caps, allowing them to combine thick and thin lines. Wide caps or other caps from oven cleaners or spray starch are especially desirable.
While there have been no evaluations of efforts that limit graffiti tools, enforcing local ordinances that do so can be difficult. Although restrictions on possession of supplies may provide an additional enforcement tool, graffiti offenders are rarely apprehended. In many tagging groups, one person carries the graffiti supplies, making it more difficult to obtain the evidence that may be necessary for a conviction.
††† Nugent (1998) describes a graffiti wall in Washington, D.C.'s Lafayette Park; Coffield (1991) notes the painting of a Southampton, England, garage.
Similarly, some jurisdictions have commissioned murals to cover up graffiti or improve the community's appearance. These murals are often located where graffiti has posed a problem. Graffiti offenders appear to respect the artwork on such murals, but the surfaces can be protected with antigraffiti coating. Murals and walls showcase artists' work and may reduce incentives to vandalize. Similar initiatives to divert offenders have included art classes or programs for reformed offenders, some of which involve a contract or pledge not to produce further graffiti. These efforts may be effective in reducing the amount of graffiti in specific locations.
Some anti-graffiti programs involve educating youth about the harms and costs of graffiti. The youth-targeted message that graffiti is uncool is conveyed through subway and bus posters, and television and radio commercials. Sports figures may endorse the message to add potency to it.
In some cases, former graffiti offenders create murals with anti-graffiti messages, give public talks, counsel other offenders, and organize graffiti cleanups.
Many jurisdictions use graffiti cleanup for community service to avoid adjudication, as a condition of probation, or as part of a disposition or sentence. Some communities have restorative justice initiatives in which face-to-face victim-offender reconciliation occurs, a contract is signed, and offenders pay restitution.
In some jurisdictions, students are suspended or expelled from school for graffiti offenses. A large number of jurisdictions have involved courts in treating graffiti incidents seriously, systematically imposing fines, community service and even jail time on chronic offenders.
New anti-graffiti technologies include the following:
Since developing or purchasing new technologies may be quite costly for most jurisdictions, such responses should be carefully evaluated first. New technologies to respond to graffiti will likely continue to become available.
† In some limited studies of bathroom graffiti (Mueller et al. 2000; Watson 1996), posting signs warning of sanctions, containing positive messages appealing to altruism, or conveying neutral messages — "Please do not write on these walls" — resulted in a decline in graffiti.
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