San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

October 1st, 2009
Solving graffiti problems requires comprehensive approach

Local Government Watch – San Marcos

There are no simple, one-shot solutions to graffiti, according to locales that are dealing with it successfully.  Some American cities are learning from their counterparts in Australia and New Zealand that have developed comprehensive approaches to eliminate graffiti.  Many of the ideas suggested in this column come from the City of Casey in Australia.

The City of San Marcos Parks and Recreation Department and the Beautification Commission have focused on developing an ordinance that would prohibit possession of implements–such as aerosol paint cans and markers–that can be used for creating graffiti near common locations where graffiti is found, requiring graffiti to be removed by the graffiti artist, and punishing parents for repeated graffiti convictions by their children.

Cities in other places have not focused their efforts so narrowly, but have developed a comprehensive range of measures with community-wide support that include:

  • requiring paint for sale in local stores to be locked up so it cannot easily be stolen (which is a common part of the gaffiti- creating enterprise)
  • removing graffiti quickly, usually within 24 to 48 hours after its discovery
  • creating a highly-organized program to remove all graffiti in the community before the comprehensive program begins
  • establishing a “graffiti hotline” for timely reporting of graffiti and quick response by the authorities for its removal
  • setting up a “tag register,” which is used to record photographs of tags and to catalogue details related to graffiti incidents so they can be linked to apprehended offenders, lead to the mapping of incidents to identify patterns, and recover abatement costs from vandals
  • monitoring frequently targeted or highly vulnerable locations and structures for rapid response by law enforcement
  • watching graffiti targets via covert cameras, civilian security patrols, and police patrols to increase the chance of catching the vandals in action
  • identifying vandals by using  video evidence, through reports from local residents and schools, and by linking into local youth networks
  • ordering young offenders to do community service work as a consequence of being convicted of vandalism, or as part of a diversion program that keeps them out of the formal juvenile and adult justice systems
  • encouraging use of anti-graffiti paints on surfaces that are regular graffiti sites to make graffiti vandalism access more difficult and graffiti removal easier
  • promoting environmental design, such as alterations to the design of a site that is a graffiti target to limit access to vulnerable walls or other graffiti targets; improving lighting and landscaping at a target site to facilitate surveillance of the site; incorporating surfaces and materials which will not attract graffiti
  • creating an adopt-a-graffiti-location (parks, buildings, fences, etc.) program participated in by local groups such as a school, Neighborhood Watch, youth groups, or other residents groups that would agree to maintain such locations and facilities in good repair, including using a rapid response strategy
  • creating public education campaigns that target specific audiences, including the graffiti artists, their parents, youth groups, and the retailers of graffiti implements
  • creating public school and youth program curricula that examine property damage, graffiti, and vandalism
  • dedicating a city staff member or team to coordinate graffiti abatement efforts
  • contracting with a private contractor, using community service workers, jail trustees, community groups, or all such entities to provide a rapid response to cleaning up graffiti quickly
  • establishing programs and activities in the city that can be just as interesting and rewarding to young graffiti offenders as making illegal graffiti, such as public art projects and programs that involve youth in community services in exchange for benefits not usually available to them (cleaning up public places in exchange for free access to Bobcat athletic events, for instance)

The comprehensive, community-wide graffiti abatement program in the City of Casey, which includes most of the above elements, has been successful in significantly reducing graffiti in the city during the last seven years since it was created, according to the city.  Similar ideas are being implemented in other cities in Australia and New Zealand, and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Santa Rosa, California, as well as other locations in the US.  An essential key to the success of such programs is that they involve the entire community working cooperatively to solve the problem.  The solutions aren’t focused on creating new regulations, though some may be useful.

In Texas, it is already illegal for a minor to possess graffiti markers and aerosol paint containers absent an approved purpose, and it is illegal for adults to possess such implements in public places or on private property without the consent of the owner.  San Marcos does not need an ordinance echoing the current state law.  It will add nothing of value to the need to abate graffiti.  More important, there is little evidence that these laws have advanced us toward eliminating graffiti vandalism.

If graffiti is a significant problem that needs further action by the city council, the Parks and Recreation Department and Beautification Committee would do well to reconsider its work in this area and enlarge its efforts to eliminate graffiti by developing a comprehensive program that includes the range of elements identified above, working with many segments of the community.  Anything less is unlikely to be effective.  Considering the history of graffiti abatement, relying solely on a law enforcement solution will be insufficient.

It is unclear that many people in San Marcos see graffiti as a problem that needs a solution.  If they do support action to eliminate graffiti, the new, minimalist legislation under consideration will not do so.  Before we spend more taxpayer money on trying to abate graffiti, perhaps we should find out first if San Marcos residents believe it is a problem in need of a solution.  If we do have such agreement, we must have community-wide involvement to succeed.  Without broad community support for an anti-graffiti program, there is little chance for success.

LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney. His “Freethought San Marcos” column runs on Mondays. His “Local Government Watch” column runs on occassional Thursdays.

© Local Government Watch–San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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