Wanna be in pictures? Tag in Montebello

Times Staff Writer

The man approached the wall and began to spray paint with wild abandon.

Immediately, an alert went off at the Montebello Police Department, and a female voice identified the location: “Tagging at 1st and Whittier, northeast Floor Shop.” The screens on numerous surveillance monitors flashed red as cameras zoomed in.

Ultimately, there were no arrests. The tagger was part of a demonstration Wednesday of Montebello’s new $1-million anti-graffiti system. The system includes certain cameras equipped with the “tagger trap,” designed to catch taggers red-handed along city streets and in parks.

The system, produced by Pasadena-based Axium Technologies Inc., includes a sensor that company and police officials said reacts to the sound emitted from an aerosol can up to 80 feet away.


When triggered, the system notifies authorities quickly through an electronic link to police headquarters, they said.

Officials said they plan to install about 120 cameras around the city by the end of December. Of those, 25 will include the special sensors, while the others will provide standard surveillance, officials said.

“So when somebody’s spraying a wall or specific target, this sensor activates the camera . . . then sends a signal to our dispatch . . . dispatch zooms in and sends units to the area,” said Det. Ismael Navarro of the Montebello Police Department’s special investigations unit’s graffiti task force. “Even if we don’t catch them in the act, the activity is recorded, so we can always go and rewind.”

Navarro said city officials hope the new system will help reduce the cost of painting over graffiti by 40 to 50% within three to four years.

“A million dollars is a lot of money, but we’re spending close to $700,000 a year repairing graffiti, and we don’t really have any proactive approach to combat it other than cleaning it up after they’ve done it,” Navarro said.

So far 60 cameras, 14 with the tagger-trap technology, are up and running along the city’s major thoroughfares such as Whittier Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue, said Gary Pak, Western regional sales manager for Axiom Technologies.

Each camera equipped with the latest technology costs $20,000 to $30,000 depending on installation costs. The 95 standard cameras cost a few hundred dollars each plus installation costs, Pak said.

City officials view the expense as an investment. Montebello, like numerous communities, remains frustrated by the fight to eliminate, or at least reduce, graffiti.

The city of Los Angeles has 65 surveillance cameras that snap 35-millimeter film photos when triggered by a motion detector and play a recorded announcement warning taggers to stop and leave. Those cameras cost about $3,000 each, said Paul Racs, director of the Office of Community Beautification for the city’s Public Works Department.

“About once a month, they go out and pull out the film, put in new film, develop the pictures and see if there is any usable information,” Racs said. “They kind of serve as a deterrent effect.”

Los Angeles officials want digital cameras, but those cost about $7,000 each, said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. A system like the one in Montebello would currently be cost prohibitive, she said.

“It’s about resources,” Greuel said. “We’re trying to hire more officers and having to make tough choices as to where you want to spend your money.”

Racs said Los Angeles has budgeted about $7 million annually to clean up graffiti.

In Los Angeles County, cleanup crews removed about 60 million square feet of graffiti last year, 8 million more than the previous year, said Ari Telias, manager of the county’s Graffiti Abatement Program. This cost the county $32 million last year, up from $27 million the previous year, Telias said.

In Chicago and Washington D.C., there are camera systems that can detect the sound of gunshots and alert authorities, said Mike Fergus, a manager for the video evidence project at the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va.

Many Montebello officials said they wished the money spent on cleaning or preventing graffiti could go to other needs.

“We’re tired of spending so much time, effort and money on the graffiti repair when we can be spending that money on educating our youths,” Navarro said. He said over the last few years there has been a rise in what law enforcement officials now call “tag-banging crews,” which are associated with gangs.

There also has been recent violence associated with tagging cases.

In February, a 17-year-old from Montebello allegedly shot at a rival tagging crew, Navarro said.

The youth, Vontrell Gonzales, who had pleaded no contest to multiple charges, accepted a plea agreement and faces 17 years in prison, Navarro said.

In August, a woman in Hesperia and another woman in nearby Pico Rivera were killed after confronting taggers.