When William Andrew Masters confronted and shot two taggers earlier this month, killing Cesar Rene Arce and wounding his companion, he triggered a raging debate about citizen response to tagging. Police declined to charge Masters, who said he acted in self-defense when threatened with a screwdriver. ROBIN GREENE talked with police, ex-taggers and other diversion experts about what citizens and parents can reasonably do when they see taggers.
Founding member, Graffiti Arts Coalition, Highland Park
I don't think this situation (with Masters) has anything to do with tagging. It sounds like a man on the street was feeling--rightly or wrongly--threatened. I also think it was rather unclever to get involved, given the nature of society today.
I'm not a fan of tagging. I battle it constantly. But I think the way we approach the problem of tagging is ludicrous. It's a matter of creating more programs that are appealing to youths. Not just any kind of program--we need programs that are in tune with their likes. We need alternatives.
I feel very uncomfortable with programs to turn in taggers, especially when there are children involved. They're our future. I think we owe it to ourselves to be a little bit more sophisticated and not just throw them in jail. Why can't we have more positive programs? Kids have a decreasing number of alternatives to gangs and tagging. It's a constant battle.
LAPD officer, coordinator of the Police Assisted Community Enhancement Program
Don't get personally involved. These taggers are becoming more dangerous. A lot of these taggers are carrying guns and they'll kill you.
(Masters) shouldn't have confronted those taggers in the first place. You're asking for a problem (by doing that). He was trying to be a good citizen but you can't do that any more. This is not "Leave It To Beaver" time. If someone sees a tagger, I would advise them to get a license plate number. Don't stop or put yourself in danger.
Former tagger, 20, Silver Lake area of Los Angeles
I started tagging when I was 14. I started out with doing it illegally. It was fun--you get away with something. I never really stopped doing graffiti, just the illegal stuff. I was 17 and I decided this is no way to live. Now I just do the art for fun; I try to make money out of it.
I have friends who have been in the same situation as those two taggers who got shot. They got shot at by concerned citizens or other gangsters. I think that's a big risk for taggers but I think it was wrong for (Masters) to shoot them.
I would tell concerned citizens to keep to themselves. If they can get the license plate number without confronting the tagger, that's fine.
Director of Shortstop Bilingual Juvenile Diversion Program of the Orange County Bar Foundation
Graffiti used to be considered a status offense, like truancy, and nobody did anything about it for a long time. Now people are seeing how much it costs.
We are doing programs in Spanish because we found that children of immigrants were able to manipulate their parents because the kids spoke English and the parents didn't.
We get the kids early and we involve the parents. We accept parent referrals, too. They can come to the police and say, "My kid is stealing, my kid is tagging." The police then refer the families to us.
The kids and parents experience the whole program together so the kids can't manipulate the parents. Lawyers talk to the kids; we take them to real courtrooms.. We help the kids with decision-making skills, handling peer pressure. They hear about the new laws in Juvenile Court--one of these is that parents are liable for graffiti damage done by their kids. We teach parents how to really look at what their kids are wearing--the low pants, the hats, the gang attire.
Many kids think it's no big deal, like stealing a candy bar. We have them talk to California Youth Authority inmates who started with tagging, with small stuff, and before they knew it they couldn't get out.
California Highway Patrol, South Los Angeles traffic officer
The average tagger takes between 30 seconds and a minute to do their work. If you have a cellular phone line, call us immediately, give us a description of the taggers, where they are, what they are doing. If there's a vehicle involved, take down the license.
I don't know if Masters did the right thing--there's always two sides to a story. But if you're walking by a tagger, I wouldn't want to run to the back of their car and take down the license plate. You might try to memorize a few numbers.
A lot of people don't know that there is a reward system out there. In the city of L.A. and Long Beach, if you give us enough information to lead to an arrest, you could be rewarded with $500 to $1,000.