San Francisco’s $20-million-a-year graffiti problem has seemingly caused more problems for victimized property owners and public agencies than for the vandals.
But now the City Attorney’s Office could be allowed to go after graffiti vandals in civil proceedings that would force them to pay for the damage and perform community service.
Supervisor London Breed and other city officials say the current process does not work and penalizes the victims, since property owners must remove graffiti within 30 days or face fines.
“We estimate that over 90 percent of the graffiti offenses are committed by the same people,” Breed said Tuesday, when she also introduced legislation to address the issue. “The criminal courts have proven an inappropriate medium for prosecuting such offenses.”
Additionally, Breed’s proposal has come with an agreement from city departments to provide more resources for the effort and collaborate. The Police Department, Breed said, “will have an additional crime analyst and a police officer on an as-needed basis so that they can develop these particular cases.”
In tandem with the legislation, employees at both the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Department of Public Works who perform graffiti cleanup will be able to use The City’s 311 communication system to send pictures of graffiti and details such as size and materials used. The 311 system would then use the information to create maps and reports for law enforcement to build cases and spot trends.
Breed announced she was going to introduce the legislation in November during the Board of Supervisors’ debate over whether to close down city parks at night. While the Recreation and Park Department said the closure, which was approved, was necessary to combat vandalism, Breed said other steps should be taken to tackle vandalism.
Her proposal bans the possession of spray paint, etching tools and “slap tags,” graffiti pre-printed on stickers, in any city park and, if the person had a recent graffiti conviction, on Muni vehicles as well.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera praised the legislation Tuesday.
“The unfortunate thing is that oftentimes the victim is the one that has to bear the cost,” Herrera said. “The way the law is currently written, I have to go after the property owner to recoup the costs.”
In 2013, San Francisco police made 203 graffiti-related arrests. The District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday was unable to provide data on how many of those arrests resulted in prosecutions.
“No doubt we are understaffed and appreciate the work of all city agencies coming together,” Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said. “We should use all the tools possible to protect The City as it relates to graffiti.”
The problem also appears to be one that involves adults and not minors.
Officer Martin Ferreira, the Police Department’s graffiti abatement officer, said that of the 203 arrests last year, 175 were adults.
“We are not seeing typically a juvenile, downtrodden, nothing-better-to-do tagger,” Ferreira said in reference to graffiti vandals. “We are seeing somebody who is a little bit more sophisticated, who is older, who is an adult, who is skilled, who knows what they are doing.”
The vandals, he said, are motivated by one thing: fame and recognition. Ferreira said that’s why they target buildings along the most popular corridors, such as Geary Boulevard, Market Street and Mission Street.
Breed said her effort is not meant to denigrate street art.
“We have some incredible graffiti artists who follow the law. In some instances their artwork is vandalized,” Breed said. “These are vandals. They are not artists.”
The proposal is modeled after similar efforts that have had success in other cities, such as San Diego.