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A hi-tech tool that tracks graffiti and compares it with others' vandalism helps prosecutors net longer jail time and higher restitution amounts.

By Charlie Ban

Whether it's considered art, vandalism, or the tip of a criminal iceberg, graffiti is getting attention from San Diego County, Calif., law enforcement.

The county has started an 18-month pilot program with Graffiti Tracker Inc. to make a stronger case against vandals and reduce tagging in all municipalities.

Graffiti Tracker is a Web-based analysis service. After county personnel photograph and upload pictures, analysts identify whether the images are gang-related and report back to the county. In addition, they can match distinguishing characteristics of graffiti from several locations to a particular vandal, tracking trends and migration and consolidating data for the county to prosecute vandals.

The county is paying $126,000 toward the program's $361,000 cost. Every city in the county will contribute, as will the Metropolitan Transit System, North County Transit District, and Unified Port District. Private contributions from AT&T, San Diego Gas and Electric, and Cox Cable helped purchase cameras.

The city of Escondido had used Graffiti Tracker for years and seen good results, so it encouraged county officials to unify various municipalities within county borders.

“To have an aggressive campaign against graffiti, we needed a regional effort,” says San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox. “Chances are these vandals are riding the trolley or taking a bus somewhere else and doing more graffiti, so we need to keep track of it over a larger area.”

The cities and county hope that restitution from vandals, once they're caught, will pay for the service's cost.

Cox Spokesman Luis Monpeagudo says the county was able to get nearly $90,000 in restitution from the family of one youth who sprayed about 100 different pieces of “art.”

Using digital cameras that include GPS stamps on photos, public works crews can photograph graffiti and upload it to Graffiti Tracker's server. The county and various municipalities previously sent police officers to take graffiti reports, but Cox says that was rarely a good allocation of personnel unless a crime was in progress. Now, public works crews can file a report and paint over the graffiti in one trip.

“It's most valuable for restitution because now we can pin a number of tags on one person,” Cox says. “Before, police would take a Polaroid and it would wind up as an afterthought. But now we can file a series of tags one guy might have done, and when we catch him we can look into whether or not he's responsible. These graffiti artists take pride in their work, so sometimes they'll take credit for other tags even if it gets them in trouble.”

If the program pays for itself, Cox says the county will move to make it permanent.

“We'll see pretty dramatic results, I expect,” he said. “It's a smarter way of cutting down on an expensive nuisance.”

— Charlie Ban; reprinted with permission from County News, National Association of Counties, Washington, D.C.