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Combating Graffiti

Created: 18 December, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
4 min read


Most residents work hard to maintain the beauty of their homes and neighborhoods and nothing can ruin a community’s image faster than graffiti.

But graffiti is not just a quality of life issue. It is an expensive problem for cities and public agencies that have to spend money to erase graffiti; money that could be better spent on services for the public.

It is a threat to public safety. Graffiti is an open invitation to gangs and other criminals to invade a neighborhood and create havoc and damage. It’s a sign that says “Do crime here.” It affects our local economy by scaring away businesses, or burdening businesses with unnecessary expenses to paint over graffiti.

Today, however, public officials around the region can arm our neighborhoods with a new weapon against graffiti – technology.

As a County Supervisor, I have had the pleasure of encouraging an effort to implement a GPS-based system that can track and analyze graffiti and provide valuable information to law enforcement and prosecutors. I’ve asked the San Diego Association of Governments to make this a region-wide project.

A system, called Graffiti Tracker, was pioneered in Escondido. Public works crews use a GPS-enabled camera to take photos of graffiti, marking it with the date and time and exact location of the graffiti.

Because taggers often mark their work with monikers or other identifiers, the program can analyze graffiti to link it to the specific tagger who created it. That information is kept in a database that law enforcement investigators and prosecutors can search to determine patterns or particular geographic areas of that tagger.

This allows investigators to narrow down the location of a tagger. For example, in Escondido, Graffiti Tracker showed that one tagger was responsible for a series of markings along a particular street on the way to a local school. That allowed investigators to zero in on a tagger who lived near the school. Last week, Escondido police announced that they had used Graffiti Tracker again to help arrest a tagger suspected of causing an estimated $50,000 in damages.

Very simply, we’re going to target the taggers.

Since taggers often hit more than one location, it gives prosecutors a bounty of information that they can use to issue multiple counts against a tagger. The more cases, the larger the restitution that prosecutors can seek in a court ruling for damages caused to a community.

For example, Escondido was awarded $185,000 in restitution last year from taggers caught using the Graffiti Tracker system.

“Leveraging this technology to join more cases together means vandals are held accountable for the totality of their crimes,” said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

Criminal taggers don’t confine themselves to one particular public jurisdiction. Some tag in neighboring cities and communities.

That’s why taking a regional approach to graffiti is so critical. Adopting a singular technology throughout the region at any given time can provide a greater wealth of information to law enforcement about taggers, and lower costs for all the participating agencies.

Currently, only three jurisdictions, Escondido, Oceanside and the County Sheriff’s Department, use Graffiti Tracker. Sheriff Bill Gore made it operational in the unincorporated areas of the county and each of the nine contracted cities the Sheriff serves – Del Mar, Encinitas, Imperial Beach, Lemon Grove, Poway, San Marcos, Santee, Solana Beach and Vista.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and I partnered to bring this program to the SANDAG Board of Directors, which voted last month to look into expanding such a system across the region.

The City of San Diego currently uses a different approach to graffiti abatement but I am hopeful they will become a vital participant in a regional, collaborative effort against graffiti.

As you can see, the benefits of a system like Graffiti Tracker are many.

It frees up officers to spend more time on criminal investigations and that means more crimes will be solved. Vandals can be targeted to pay to clean up the damage they’ve caused. It reduces overall graffiti and can help law enforcement identify areas likely to be targeted for graffiti. It also provides additional benefits by giving agencies a database of information that they can use to apply for grant funding to eradicate blight.

I strongly encourage all the cities in the region, along with transportation and utility companies that also suffer graffiti damage, to join SANDAG’s coordinated regional effort.

Make no mistake, graffiti is a scourge upon the community. A coordinated approach is our best weapon against graffiti.