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Going After Graffiti

A new law proposed by Oakland's city attorney would impose fines on both taggers and property owners.

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With graffiti becoming an increasingly serious problem in large areas of Oakland, the Oakland City Attorney's Office is proposing a new city ordinance that would impose financial penalties on persons convicted of applying graffiti to property within the city and on property owners who fail to remove graffiti in a timely manner. The proposal is scheduled to receive its first hearing before the city council's Public Works Committee on November 27.

If passed as proposed, the new ordinance would also impose fines on parents of minors convicted of graffiti offenses, as well as upgrade tagging from an infraction to a misdemeanor, making it a jailable offense under city law. Oakland currently has an anti-graffiti ordinance, but it is largely confined to measures to prevent youth from having access to graffiti-creating materials such as aerosol paint products.

In addition, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office already has the power to charge graffiti offenses as a misdemeanor under state law, but the change in the Oakland municipal code would allow Oakland to prosecute them as misdemeanors if the City Attorney's Office chooses to re-establish its own prosecuting unit for municipal crimes.

Oakland journalist-activist Eric Arnold, speaking for the Oakland-based Community Rejuvenation Project, which is working on alternative solutions to the city's tagging problem, said that while "I don't doubt that the efforts of the City Attorney's Office are well-intentioned," his organization would like the city to adopt programs that create artistic alternatives for taggers, "not just a punitive component."

The proposed graffiti-abatement ordinance was announced in a City Attorney's Office press release in the last days of the election this month, in which appointed City Attorney Barbara Parker defeated Councilmember Jane Brunner to win her first elected term. The ordinance was proposed jointly with the office of Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who chose not to seek re-election this year and will be leaving office next month.

"Not only does graffiti take away from the livability and beauty of our City — it also has a chilling effect on our neighborhoods, and can encourage more serious blight and crime," Parker stated in a press release issued shortly before the election. Nadel added: "Graffiti is costing building owners and those forced to look at it money and peace of mind. This ordinance takes a comprehensive approach to provide the city with better tools to eliminate the blight and disrespect that graffiti represents."

Under the proposed ordinance, financial penalties for convicted taggers would begin at "not more than $750 for the first citation issuance," but could quickly spiral into the thousands of dollars depending upon several factors, including multiple taggings of the same location, multiple offenses, and failure of the tagger to remove the tags from the property. Taggers would also be liable for civil penalties imposed as a result of successful lawsuits filed by the property owners affected.

If the council ultimately approves the measure, property owners would have ten days to remove graffiti from their property, at their own cost, and could have fines and administrative costs assessed by the city for failure to do so. While the proposed ordinance contains what it calls a "restorative justice" component that allows community service or parenting classes "in lieu of" fines in some instances, the measure has no mechanism for preventing graffiti in the first place.

"The ordinance is intended to be part of a multi-step approach, not the only city mechanism to address this problem," Oakland Deputy City Attorney Richard Illgen said in an interview last week. Noting the difficulties of identifying taggers in advance of commission of the crime itself, Illgen said that the ordinance was "not a program" to address the overall graffiti problem in the city, and that there may be other steps taken by government officials to supplement the city attorney's efforts.

While Oakland may join many California cities in forcing property owners to pay for graffiti cleanup, some municipalities have had success in taking on the financial cleanup burden themselves. In the City of Los Angeles, for example, business or home property owners can simply call a city hotline or fill out an online report form to trigger a city-paid-for cleanup. Property owners are given the option of receiving free paint, rollers, and other supplies from the city if they wish to remove the tagging themselves quicker than the city can get to it.

Paul Racs, Director of the Office of Community Beautification in the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, said in an interview that LA removed some 30 million square feet of graffiti from city buildings during the last fiscal year — 20 percent of it from owner or citizen requests and 80 percent by city-sponsored cleanup crews patrolling graffiti hot-spot corridors.

While LA has cut its graffiti-cleanup program by 25 percent in the past two years because of budget problems, the city currently allocates $6.5 million per year to the program. But Illgen said that Oakland "doesn't have the resources to go around cleaning up" graffiti itself.

San Francisco, Richmond, and Sacramento require property owners to clean up graffiti from their property without city financial assistance, while Long Beach, Thousand Oaks, and Artesia offer free removal from private property.

While Oakland's proposed new ordinance has a component for convicted taggers to request mitigation of their fines by allowing them to help remove graffiti from public and private property in the city, LA's Racs said that city has abandoned such efforts. "We found out that [the taggers] were learning too much about the strategies behind our cleanup efforts and were using that knowledge to evade getting caught later on," he said.

The nonprofit Community Rejuvenation Project in Oakland has been promoting the expansion of murals as one way to get street artists out of the business of tagging and into the area of city beautification and the creation of public art. Saying that his group prefers the term "aeresol-based artists" over "the g-word," Eric Arnold said CRP members feel that an anti-graffiti program in the city "should recognize the fact that one size does not fit all, that someone writing their name on the side of a business is very different from someone painting a mural on an abandoned building."

Arnold said that while the CRP would like to be a partner with the city in such efforts and has met with several city agencies in recent months on the issue, it has not been consulted by the City Attorney's Office in the drawing up of the proposed new ordinance. Arnold said CRP members do plan to attend the November 27 Public Works Committee meeting to present its alternative program to committee members.

Racs, the Los Angeles Beautification director, threw cold water on the idea — not included in the proposed Oakland ordinance — to mitigate graffiti problems through the promotion of mural-painting. "We found that graffiti artists were targeting murals," Racs said, noting that because it is more difficult to eradicate graffiti from murals than from a blank wall, graffiti was staying up in those locations far longer.

While City Attorney Parker's letter to the council introducing the proposed ordinance explained that criminal enforcement of state anti-graffiti laws has become less of a priority in Oakland because of "diminishing police resources" and a change in "District Attorney's prosecution priorities" toward "more major crimes," the letter contains no analysis on whether the fines expected to be imposed by the ordinance would cover the added cost of police implementation and city-sponsored prosecution.

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