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Graffiti: How to take a nuisance crime, extract evidence and recoup money

Close analysis can reveal valuable information that your department can use as evidence to seek
prosecution and restitution

Sep 7, 2018

By Laura Neitzel, PoliceOne Staff

When Timothy Kephart was in graduate school and looking for a job in criminal justice, little did
he know that the entry-level crime analyst position he took at the city of Carson, California,
would lead to a lifelong career. His first task was to go out every day and take pictures of the
new graffiti that had appeared overnight.

graffiti_02He had no idea what it all meant, so Kephart
sought help from a gang detective at the L.A.
County Sheriff’s Department, who taught him
how to read the code. After a few months of
gathering daily photos, Kephart noticed
patterns emerging. He realized that graffiti was
a language that could be deciphered to provide
law enforcement with clues to the tagger’s
identity, as well as actionable intelligence
about gang affiliations, rivalries and threats.

“I realized that if law enforcement had this
information, it could help them not only address the graffiti problem on the tagging
side, it also would give the gang intelligence unit information they needed,” Kephart, founder of 
Graffiti Tracker, said. “Law enforcement can use the information extracted from the gang graffiti
to track gang membership, prove motive for murder or even prevent a murder.”

RELATED ARTICLES:
Tracking graffiti one tag at a time

RECOGNIZING DIFFERENT KINDS OF GRAFFITI
Using intelligence gained from gang graffiti to halt escalation of gang violence is a worthy goal
in itself. But nationally, gang graffiti represents only 10 percent of all graffiti. Another 5 to 10
percent is generic “Bobby loves Sue”-type graffiti.

The vast majority, 80 percent, is tagging graffiti. That’s where Kephart thinks law enforcement
should be focusing their efforts in order to put a curb on the problem.

The very nature of tagging graffiti – in which the tag is the offender’s personal alias, acronym or
marking
 – makes tagging vandalism a unique crime in that the perpetrator brazenly leaves clues
to his or her identity and the location of the crime.

“A tagger’s motivation is for fame and notoriety. It’s the only crime that I’m familiar with where
they sign their name,” said Kephart.

Denver Partners Against Graffiti describes tagging vandalism as “like logo placement or brand
advertising. The primary goal of tagging is to advertise the vandal’s ‘tag’ (or street name) and
‘crew’ (tagging group or gang set) and get recognition from others for prominent placement of
tags throughout the city.”

Recognizing that unabated graffiti can lead to a decline in property values and other detriments
to the community, common practice is to paint over graffiti within 24 to 48 hours. Since the
graffiti tagger is looking for recognition, the less time the tag remains visible, the less rewarding
it is for the tagger. Unfortunately, this often just leaves a fresh canvas, inviting a challenge for
another tagger to tag the same spot or for the original tagger to reinforce ownership.

This tag-paint-tag-paint game between police and graffiti vandals can seem like an endless cycle,
leaving many law enforcement agencies to consider tagging graffiti as a low-level, nuisance
crime that is just part of the status quo of any community. Consequently, many agencies and
municipalities without an advanced graffiti reduction strategy resign themselves to routinely
budgeting thousands of dollars for graffiti abatement each year without realizing there is a way
to recoup some of that cost.

ABATEMENT VS. EVIDENCE
By spending money on abatement before extracting evidence, Kephart realized that police were
missing the opportunity to gain restitution from graffiti vandals. So he created Graffiti Tracker,
an actionable, intelligence-based system that helps agencies document tagging graffiti and
preserve evidence that can be used to identify a suspect and build a case. Within minutes, graffiti
evidence can be documented and uploaded to a database for analysis, and abatement can
proceed.

Graffiti Tracker provides its clients access to a free mobile app so any police officer, public
works department worker or even a citizen volunteer can photograph graffiti. The location is
automatically tracked with the photograph and uploaded to a secure, web-based system. Within
24 hours of submission, Graffiti Tracker analysts extract key pieces of evidence that can be used
for investigation. The system builds a database of graffiti by the vandal’s tag or crew and
location in order to connect incidents and create a complete profile of activity by tagger and
crew.

“When we connect that data, we can see that this tagger has appeared with this tagger 15
different times,” said Kephart. “If you catch one tagger, there’s a likelihood he’s going to
lead you to another.”

An advantage of Graffiti Tracker is the experience of its human analysts in decoding gang
graffiti and alerting law enforcement to potential threats.

“If the analysts see that a gang threatens to kill somebody from another gang, they immediately
put that information into a report and send it via email to law enforcement,” said Kephart.

To date, Graffiti Tracker has analyzed over 5 million photographs, helped police identify and
arrest over 4,000 graffiti vandals and helped municipalities recoup over $9 million in restitution.