Graffiti Investigation

I approach the job from four perspectives:
  1. Investigation
  2. Analysis
  3. Intelligence
  4. Publicity
Investigation

There are about 800 graffiti reports a year in Seattle and I review each one, including the accompanying photos. If the report has solvability factors--such as fingerprints, security video, a suspect vehicle license plate--I assign it to myself for follow up. Prior to the creation of the graffiti detective position, these reports were reviewed by the sergeant in charge of the precinct detectives. It is a strong advantage to have an investigator who can read the tags and connect the dots.Graffiti vandals tend to offend in a wider area than typical criminals. Getting your tag up everywhere is part of the culture. 

You should consider a jail interview for in custody cases. Even if it is a strong case and you don't need a confession, chatting with a graffiti vandal can have a huge intelligence benefit. 

I have trained Seattle Police patrol officers to put cameras and cell phones in evidence if there is reason to believe that they were used to photograph graffiti. If it is noted in the report that a camera is in evidence, I draft a search warrant. Recent court rulings have severely limited the circumstances where a police officer can search for evidence without a warrant. These legal restrictions have increased the need for detectives to handle graffiti. Previously the police could seize evidence in plain view. Now cars are routinely impounded because they contain graffiti supplies in plain view and I must draft a search warrant to seize the evidence.   

Analysis

The most important function of a graffiti detective is to know which people write what tag. Once you figure out that a tag belongs to a certain person you must document this. This could be as simple as a spreadsheet with names and tags. However, it is better if your data is shared. I use my departments Versadex records management system (RMS) to keep track of my offenders. If it is a known suspect I list the tag as an Alias. Since Versadex does not allow for an alias of an unknown suspect, I use the "Possible Name" block to record tags in unsolved cases. Any searchable space (such as Notes)  will do if your system does not have a Possible Name block. 

Instead of, or in addition to, your RMS system you can use one of three commercial databases available to track graffiti:

www.graffititracker.net $30k/year +$1,300 cameras. They do the analysis. Used with success by Denver. 

www.594Graffiti.com $25k/year. Works with any GPS camera phone.

http://www.graffititrackingsystem.com/ $5k+$600/year. Used by many cities (Los Angeles, San Jose, Portland) and you can see their data. 

These services all have two disadvantages: cost and labor. You must convince your agency to pay for it and then someone has to enter the data. I tried using GTS, but stopped after a year because I was spending half my day doing data entry. The big advantage of GTS is that I could see graffiti vandals in other cities and identify them if they came to Seattle. In reality I catch only about one out of town writer a year who is  "going on tour" so it was not worth the trouble. I can call up my colleagues in other cities if one of their vandals visits me. 

Another valuable activity you can do as an analyst is put out bulletins to the patrol officers out on the street as well as outside agencies. For me, bulletins fall into three categories:

  1. Requests to identify unknown suspects. Normally these bulletins will contain video stills from a surveillance camera. But I do occasionally get photos of suspects doing graffiti vandalism taken by a citizen with a smart phone! The power of crowdsourced crime solving is astonishing. I had an officer arrest a suspect for doing felony level damage on a commercial truck at the Capitol Hill Block Party music festival. He recognized the suspect's tag from a bulletin I put out a year ago where the same person was caught on video downtown but never identified. The suspect received an additional charge for the old case. 

  2. Crime trends. I put out a bulletin when I discover that a tagging crew is at work. They tend to be the most destructive graffiti vandals because they are making a team effort. When I started as the graffiti detective, Seattle was under assault from the UPS tagging crew. UPS stands for United Pot Smokers, but hilariously they would wear old United Parcel Service uniforms when they went out on bombing runs. Once this information was conveyed to the patrol officers, these suspects were constantly getting stopped by the police and quickly left town. Another example of a crime trend is when Seattle was getting hit by huge 20 foot high tags. I explained that this was caused by a repurposed fire extinguishers and to be on the lookout for these devices.

  3. Tagger lists. When I started the graffiti detective position I would issue a bulletin every month listing everyone who was arrested for graffiti. Then I switched to a yearly recap to avoid bulletin fatigue. 
Intelligence

Intelligence means instead of waiting for the information to come to you, you go out and get it! I do this with the internet, covert cameras, and human intelligence.

The internet is discussed in detail in the open source section. If you only look at one web site for graffiti investigations, it should be Flickr. Flickr is by far the most popular photo sharing site on the internet. While it is mostly used for non criminal purposes by amateur and professional photographers, graffiti vandals like it because it is a way to show criminal activity anonymously and not associated with their social networks, such as Facebook. 

I used Flickr to teach me how to read graffiti. The person who posts a photo of graffiti will always "tag" the picture with what the graffiti says. They have done the interpreting for you!

Consider using a covert camera on hot spots. The simplest option is a game camera such as Reconyx. It is labor intensive to deal with these cameras because you must physically visit them to change the batteries and check the memory card. I encourage victims of graffiti vandalism to install their own security surveillance systems. 

If you are willing to chat with graffiti vandals and regular members of the public, you will get information on who is vandalizing. The penalties for graffiti in Seattle are so light that I have not had someone be compelled to work as a bona fide confidential informant, but every conversation with a vandal is an opportunity to gain an advantage against your adversaries. 

Publicity

It is said that there are three elements to an anti-graffiti program: Eradication, Enforcement and Education. Most cities are good at the first two E's, but Education gets forgotten. On a slow news day the media will come calling and I always talk to them. I want to get the word out that graffiti is a crime and will not be tolerated. 

See here for a interview where I discuss graffiti in Seattle.

I also make myself available for public speaking at community groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, and I attend seminars on graffiti where you can give and receive knowledge and network with other graffiti investigators. 

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