San Diego Police have new weapons in the fight against tagging with Graffiti Tracker, Spray & Pay Reward Program

Graffiti can be found on ancient Roman and Greek ruins, which means the issue has been around for a long time and so it's unlikely to ever be eradicated completely.

However, Caesar didn't have technology like Graffiti Tracker and a law enforcement unit dedicated to tackling graffiti — or tagging as it's called today — which means that the chances of getting a handle on the problem have never been greater.

Officer Scott Holden of the police department's Gang & Graffiti Unit discussed graffiti in Pacific Beach at the Town Council meeting on June 20, and while noting that most graffiti occurs after 11 p.m., he said it's the speed of the act that makes it difficult to apprehend.

"It could be just a kid going down the Boardwalk on a skateboard to go to work, go see his girlfriend, and he pulls out his marker or spray paint can and it's just so fast," Holden said. "Most people think, 'Oh, what did he just do? I don't want to call a cop because I don't know exactly what he did.' It just takes so little time to put up a graffiti tag that it's hard to catch the perpetrators."

Most graffiti is discovered after the fact, but that's where Graffiti Tracker comes to play. Each individual act of graffiti is kept in a database along with the cost of restitution (labor, paint, etc), so when the tagger is eventually arrested, he or she is prosecuted for the total bill.

For Graffiti Tracker to work, it depends on the same element that motivates taggers to vandalize in the first place: ego. According to Holden, taggers typically sign their blemishes using pseudonyms, which is how they're identified.

"We're able to find who they are through their nicknames," Holden said. "Even tagging crews, most of them will have nicknames, or just the tag is their nickname. If there's no moniker, we really can't do anything unless one of you folks or the police catch them in the act."

Because police can't be expected to inspect every building, wall and sign in a neighborhood, tracking and prosecuting taggers is a collaborative effort with the community, Holden said. Taking photos of graffiti and sending it to the City through the Get It Done app on a smartphone or directly to Holden is indispensible.

"Or you can just simply e-mail me and say, there's a bunch of graffiti over on Cass St. and give me the hundred number of the block and I'll go out and take care of it," Holden added.

Spray and Pay Reward Program

Deputy City Attorney Han Hershman described the City's Spray and Pay Reward Program that encourages people to report graffiti and help prosecute specific cases.

"Even if [the damage] is just $5, we need that amount and we need your testimony in order to successfully prosecute for that particular graffiti," Hershman said. "But if you take the time to [give] your name and the information and testify in court if it's needed, once the person is convicted of the crime, then you can get a reward up to $500 for it."

While the audience was receptive to the message, resident Devin Reilly highlighted the disheartening rate at which graffiti can reappear once a site has been cleaned. Reilly described an area of Mission Bay Park where all the graffiti was removed two weeks earlier.

"I probably took 50-plus pictures of all the tags that are there in the last two weeks and most of that tagging was done within a week of the City coming through," he said. "We want to help, we want to do what we can, but it's just more than we can do."

Holden sympathized and noted that graffiti is partly a seasonal issue in Pacific Beach.

"You definitely get more in the summer than you do in the winter because you have a lot of people coming in," he said. "Sometimes we'll get tagging that we've never seen and all of a sudden they'll be gone in a week and we'll never see it again. So we're thinking maybe it's the kids that come down with their families and tag and leave."

According to Holden, graffiti is not as rampant as it is in other San Diego communities because PB residents are generally active and will take the matter into their own hands. Because only two City crews are charged with cleaning up graffiti, Holden said that community spirit is critical to wipe out graffiti by literally wiping it out. "If you see something that's ugly and hasn't been painted out, by all means, it's your neighborhood," he said.

While graffiti is associated with gangs of youth, Holden is careful to point out that there is no profile that accounts for the enormity of the problem.

"I've had them anywhere from age 10 to 50, from male to female, from rich to poor," he said. "Graffiti is everywhere; rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, middle-class neighborhoods. I don't understand it 100 percent exactly, but it's a waste of time is what it is."

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Report Tagging to Officer Scott Holden:

• E-mail: sholden@pd.sandiego.gov

• Phone: (619) 531-2948

• Mobile devices: Get It Done app

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