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Cameras become graffiti fighters

SATURDAY, AUG. 29, 2009

Bob Kuehl, with the city of Yakima, installs a graffiti camera on a pole Thursday.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Bob Kuehl, with the city of Yakima, installs a graffiti camera on a pole Thursday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Flash, voice surprise taggers in Yakima

YAKIMA – Here’s one way to gauge whether the city’s newest anti-graffiti program might actually work: Ask one of Yakima’s most prolific former taggers.

“I know if I had a light flashing at me and I didn’t know who was speaking, I’d be out of there. Fast,” says Jakob Lewis, a 22-year-old who finished a ninth-month graffiti sentence earlier this summer.

He’s referring to the 18 talking “flash cams” that Yakima police are installing in areas frequently hit by taggers.

At specific hours – usually at night – the units’ digital cameras detect motion when there shouldn’t be any. When movement is sensed, the units issue a loud recorded warning, then snap a picture that can be downloaded later by cops.

So far, the machines have captured two clear images of taggers. One has been identified, and the case has been passed on to a gang unit officer.

“They’re a deterrent,” says Officer Jaime Gonzalez, who monitors images caught by the cameras. “The effect is – when they’re up and working, people are not tagging. It’s not necessarily a device to catch them.”

Matt Klaus says he’s noticed a significant decline in graffiti in the areas where cameras have been placed. As the maintenance supervisor for the Committee for Downtown Yakima, his job involves cleaning up the messes they leave on public and private property.

Klaus said word about the cameras has spread fast.

“Taggers know,” he said, adding that 85 percent of downtown tagging isn’t done by gang members but rather teenagers looking for a thrill. “Some of the taggers are leery. They’re looking around for the cameras. … They’re not going to be messing around with them.”

Yakima Police Department bought 18 of the units this year. The working units cost $6,000 each, but a few are fake and lack a camera.

Lewis, the former tagger, said he believes the cameras will be effective, but only until taggers find a way around them. The adrenaline rush that comes with tagging a moniker in a public place is too hard for serious taggers to ignore.

“You’d have to put them up in every square inch of the city,” he says.

Officers have made a pitch to business owners: You buy more cameras, we’ll do the monitoring. So far, nobody has taken that offer.


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