Officials from dozens of county and city agencies crammed a meeting room Wednesday to chart their progress in the war on graffiti and begin the task of merging their varied efforts into a unified front against the costly vandalism.
The meeting, a follow-up to efforts of the Orange County Graffiti Task Force, also marked the debut of the new 24-hour countywide graffiti hot line, (714) 834-3400. Residents may call it to report vandalism on public and private property.
While no new policy was created, the meeting was an opportunity for officials from law enforcement agencies, the district attorney’s office, public works, school systems and other agencies to meet face to face, said County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, the task force chairman.
“The turnout here today underscores and emphasizes the priority given to stopping graffiti,” Vasquez said to the unexpectedly large, standing-room-only crowd at a Garden Grove meeting room. “We, all of us, have been getting a very, very strong message from our constituents that they want something done about graffiti.”
Several common threads were apparent in the meeting’s presentations. Officials lauded the effectiveness of covering up graffiti quickly as a way to discourage taggers, who thrive on their monikers being seen by a large audience.
At the same time, one official said too speedy a removal could hamper arresting taggers, whose handiwork will cost county agencies an estimated $4 million this year. Logging and photographing the scrawls before removal is vital, a district attorney’s office investigator said, to ensure that evidence is available for a conviction.
Speakers also shared statistics that would suggest a decline in tagging, which reached epidemic proportions in late 1992 and early this year. Court referrals of vandalism cases to the county Probation Department were down to 136 in July, from a high of 308 in March, said Don Hallstrom, director of Juvenile Court services.
One likely deterrent has been the tougher penalties that taggers face and the campaign to publicize these penalties to would-be vandals through schools, said Chaz Ferguson, county graffiti abatement coordinator.
Penalties include a one-year delay or suspension of driving privileges, 100 hours of community service and a $250 fine.
Though tagging crews may be fewer or less active than seven months ago, Douglass Woodsmall, supervisor of the district attorney’s gang unit, said the subculture is continuing its tendency to become more violent.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen that taggers are becoming more and more ganglike,” Woodsmall said. “What was once a distinct phenomenon has begun to merge with the gang phenomena.”
The task force decided to meet monthly and strive to create a shared-information network. They also agreed to seek a uniform approach to the vandalism as a way of delivering improved assistance to victims and more evenhanded justice to taggers.
Vasquez also hinted that more help would be coming from state lawmakers who are interested in stiffer punishment for graffiti vandals and in requiring storekeepers to keep spray paint cans locked up or out of reach.
“We have legislators just chomping at the bit to help,” Vasquez said. “They are prepared, ready and anxious to continue this battle.”