Police, City Hall weigh next step to curb graffiti
Commissioner Randy Leonard is the City Council's most outspoken graffiti opponent.
In recent months, he has convinced the council to pass an ordinance restricting the sale of spray paint within the city limits, and has also pushed to include graffiti in the offenses that result in guaranteed jail time under a city-funded program called Project 57.
But some believe it will take more to significantly reduce graffiti in Portland, and Leonard is one of them.
Leonard's goal for curbing graffiti is what he refers to as a phased approach. One of the newest phases could involve creating a city-sanctioned graffiti wall - where taggers and graffiti artists could paint without fear of criminal charges - as a way to fight Portland's most visible graffiti.
'I've actually been convinced that makes a lot of sense,' Leonard said about building legal walls in different areas of Portland.
Leonard's interest in such a wall is an indication that his recent anti-graffiti efforts are, by themselves, not enough to stem the graffiti issue facing the city of Portland.
And he concedes that at least some of the people who create the largest and most visible graffiti in town, such as taggers, will have no trouble getting paint.
He calls them graffiti 'artists' and says they have skills and resources that distinguish them from what he calls 'malicious vandals,' whom he sees as being the main target of his new ordinance.
'You have to define what the problem is and realize there are these different subclasses of people who do the graffiti,' Leonard said. 'It's two different subjects that a lot of people confuse into one.'
Click on the blue icon in the upper right hand of the corner to see more photos of graffiti around Portland.
Not everyone, including those charged with enforcing the new policies, draws distinctions between vandals and artists, nor do they agree with the idea that a legal graffiti wall will stop taggers or graffiti artists.
'Free walls don't work,' said Portland police officer Matt Miller, the bureau's graffiti investigator. 'They draw more taggers to that area, but then you'll see the surrounding area being pummeled by new graffiti.'
To Portland's graffiti abatement coordinator, Marcia Dennis, if it is done without permission, it's not art, it's vandalism.
'That's the view I have to have, whether I like it or not,' Dennis said. 'There are some that are really colorful or funny, but it's vandalism.'
When Leonard pitched the ordinance to the council, he hoped it would have the same effect that locking up pseudoephedrine had on the production of methamphetamine in Oregon.
An ingredient in over-the-counter cold medicine, pseudoephedrine also is used by homegrown meth cooks.
The restrictions caused large-scale meth cooking in Oregon to all but drop off the map, and dropping off the map is exactly what Leonard had in mind for spray paint-related vandalism with his new ordinance.
The ordinance that went into effect Oct. 1 requires anyone who buys spray paint or other potential graffiti supplies to show valid photo ID at stores. The supplies also must be stored out of customers' reach.
Storeowners must keep a record for two years of anyone who buys spray paint and similar items, such as spray paint nozzles, paint pens of a certain size, glass cutting tools or glass etching tools and or instruments.
Leonard hopes these restrictions will help stop the most casual graffiti vandals - those he believes are 'often the people who steal a can of spray paint, or buy a can of cheap paint, and wander through neighborhoods spraying ' '(bleep) you' on people's cars, drawing penises and ruining a working-class person's car or fence.'
But Leonard does not believe the restrictions will stop those with 'artistic skills (who) get specialized paints and tips and get the kinds of products to do truly what most people would consider to be art.'
As Leonard puts it: 'I'm not defending graffiti artists, but I think it's very important to make clear that typically they aren't people who would go after people's cars or a person's house or fence. I think there's a certain amount of ethics. They'll pick a blank wall, a warehouse wall, or a freight train. That's not appropriate, and that's not legal, but that's not who we're after.'
Leonard followed up the spray-paint restrictions by pushing to include criminal mischief in the list of crimes that result in guaranteed jail time under Project 57, an agreement between the city and Multnomah County for the city to pay $1.3 million a year to reserve 57 county jail beds for quality-of-life crimes.
'I feel like I'm giving a tool to the police,' Leonard said. 'If you catch someone in the act, don't give them a ticket, slap them on the wrist and send them on their way; arrest their ass and take them to jail. And we'll deal with them in the criminal justice system.'
These steps are in addition to adding a graffiti investigation officer to the police bureau, which happened three years ago, when Miller was appointed.
The second step was to assemble a photo database of graffiti taggers that would be available to officers.
Since establishing the database Miller has documented more than 60 graffiti crews operating in Portland, and has begun classifying taggers within their crews. Some crews Miller has followed have 10 or more members.
Additional steps include the new graffiti ordinance and now, the addition of criminal mischief to Project 57 crimes.
The next step, which Miller points out is difficult due to staffing shortages, would be to add officers to the graffiti investigation team and more money for graffiti abatement or clean up.
Police say they need more
Leonard, Miller and Dennis all agree there are many reasons, including the lack of resources dedicated to it, why it is so hard to significantly reduce the amount of graffiti in town. For example, Miller is the only police officer working on graffiti full time.
'We need three full-time officers on the street meeting these kids,' Miller said. 'We need face-to-face, personal contact to let them know we know who they are, who's in their crew, and that we're going to arrest them every time they get up (vandalize).'
The process of battling graffiti can be cumbersome, and Miller points out that putting together just one case to prosecute a prolific tagger can take several months.
According to Miller, he is lucky to get four to six major cases against a prolific tagger completed each year.
'Unfortunately with limited resources and staffing shortages, this is what we're stuck with,' Miller said. 'And me sitting at a desk isn't solving our problem.'
Over the past three years, actual gang graffiti has made up about 13 percent to 15 percent of documented graffiti in the city, which is up from just 3 percent to 5 percent from the previous five to seven years, while tagger graffiti makes up 80 percent to 85 percent.
One city has 'art wall'
One thing Leonard, Dennis and Miller all agree on is that Portland's graffiti problem is not any worse than any other city. Miller also says that graffiti is becoming more widespread because it is working itself into the popular culture.
'It's in movies, it's in music videos, they even have video games now where the entire purpose is to get up (spray-paint graffiti tags onto walls),' Miller said.
Dan Melbihess, who works for Art Primo, a specialized graffiti paint supply company out of Seattle with a large online store, completely agrees.
Melbihess compares graffiti to skateboarding, which once was considered a crime and a problem until cities gave young people a place to skate by building skate parks.
'We do need to provide these kids with an outlet,' Melbihess said. 'Police need to try to meet with kids, it's the city's responsibility to recognize the culture and provide places for kids to paint.'
That's exactly what happened in Redmond, Wash.
Kim van Ekstrom, the city's chief communications officer, said Redmond (just east of Seattle, home of Microsoft Corp.) created a place for graffiti artists to show their work without fear of arrest or harassment.
'There were a couple of kids that (Redmond police) knew who were doing graffiti in the area, and instead of going after them they worked with them and recruited them to help them find a solution,' van Ekstrom said.
The solution was Redmond's legal graffiti wall, or 'hip-hop art wall,' as it is called, next to the city's skate park. The wall was built in 1993, and anyone can paint on it once they register with the police department.
'The next year (after the wall was built), graffiti went down 67 percent, and we haven't seen an increase since then,' said Jim Bove, spokesman for the Redmond Police Department. 'Before that, it was a huge problem. We had 60 complaints (about graffiti) each month.'
Although Leonard is convinced that a legal graffiti wall makes a lot of sense, he realizes that a single wall would not remedy Portland's graffiti situation.
Miller also is not convinced that a legal graffiti wall would make a big difference. Redmond has around 50,000 residents, while Portland has more than 500,000 residents, with about a 1.5 million people living in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.