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Spokane tries to streamline graffiti reporting, enforcement

Amanda Rosler is not easily deterred.

With volunteers from Gateway Church she has taken on the graffiti problem in Hillyard. The group goes house to house, knocks on doors and asks for permission to paint over or remove graffiti from buildings, sidewalks and fences.

“Sometimes people look at us like we are crazy, but most sign the waiver we have and then we just go at it,” Rosler said. “I think it works because we are just crazy enough to go out there and paint.”

On the other side of town, Trulie Helgerson has repeatedly reported tagging in her Rockwood Neighborhood to Crime Check – and yes, she’s willing to go out there and paint it over herself – but so far none of the graffiti has been removed.

“My biggest concern is that young children are being desensitized to it,” Helgerson said. “That could become very expensive to all of us later on.”

The way Spokane handles graffiti reports, abatement and enforcement is in a state of flux

The website is no longer around and neither is Deputy Eric Walker, who was well-known as the go-to officer on graffiti abatement.

Now city staff is proposing an ordinance that would tie together the efforts of the Spokane Police Department and code enforcement, hopefully making a dent in the graffiti problem and making it a lot easier for people to report graffiti.

At a public safety committee meeting on Oct. 8, city staff members presented a research paper and draft graffiti abatement ordinance to neighborhood council representatives.

If the ordinance is approved by the City Council, the enforcement of graffiti abatement will fall under Office of Neighborhood Services and Code Enforcement which is directed by Heather Trautman.

“We are trying to work things out so there’s a single number to call, a single place to report graffiti within the city,” Trautman told the public safety committee. “For now, until we work out all the details, your best source for reporting graffiti is Crime Check or the COPS shops.” Crime Check took more than 1,000 graffiti reports last year, and has received 635 through August.

Change in enforcement

The cost of graffiti removal falls on the property owner, and that will not change. The proposed ordinance ties together the efforts of the Spokane Police Department and the city to make enforcement swift and to keep track of gang-related graffiti and tagging.

Code Enforcement would process the initial complaint and share it with the Spokane Police Department. The graffiti would be inspected and photographed and a notice of violation would be issued, giving the property owner 10 days to get the graffiti removed. If the property owner does not comply, a code officer will issue a civil infraction – a $513 fine – for the violation and for each following day the graffiti remains up.

The Office of Neighborhood Services’ Jackie Caro said the goal is to treat graffiti the same way a fire hazard is currently handled.

“We would also develop a way that volunteers could help people who can’t do the work themselves,” Caro said.

Nancy Woodford, a Latah Valley neighborhood council representative, asked what the city is doing to lead by example.

“You can’t send out huge fines to people when there is graffiti all over the city,” Woodford said. “The city has to really do something as well.”

What’s being done

In Spokane, graffiti removal efforts are delegated to the city’s departments, which makes it difficult to track the cost or hours spent on graffiti removal, said city spokesman Brian Coddington.

The Spokane Parks and Recreation Department, for instance, has one employee dedicated to full-time graffiti removal from mid-March through October.

“I would estimate we have over 1,600 hours per year invested in graffiti removal,” said Al Vorderbrueggen, assistant division manager of parks operations. “That’s more than $35,000.” And that does not include the cost of equipment and supplies dedicated to graffiti removal.

Dan Carney is the self-titled “graffiti man” who drives from park to park removing graffiti all summer.

“We hear from people and we hear from our own staff and then I get a report and head out,” Carney said.

The skate park in Hillyard, A.M. Cannon Park and Emerson Park are some of the worst hit. The one thing they’ve found that does work to deter graffiti is to remove it as quickly as possible.

Carney said people shouldn’t try to remove graffiti located on public property on their own.

“They mean well but they can cause damage to the surface that was painted on; we’d rather come out and do it,” Carney said. Sharpies are most commonly used for tagging and also the most difficult to remove Carney said.

Power poles and electrical boxes are prime targets for tagging.

Avista senior communication manager Debbie Simock said crews spend on average 20 hours a month removing graffiti.

“For safety reasons, we ask that individuals not try to cover graffiti on Avista equipment,” Simock said. “The safest action is to report the location of the graffiti to us.”

Not all power poles and transformer boxes belong to Avista, just like all overpasses don’t belong to the Department of Transportation.

“The city is responsible for the area under the freeway downtown,” said Al Gilson, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation. He estimates that DOT spends $25,000 over a two-year period on graffiti removal in Spokane County. And people may not undertake graffiti removal on cement barriers and fences without WSDOT’s permission. “The permission has to be in place first,” Gilson said.

Spokane Public Schools has kept track of graffiti removal hours since 2003, wrote Tim Wood, director of maintenance and operations, in an email.

“We have seen a dramatic drop in graffiti over the past 20 years,” Wood wrote. He said the district spent about $35,000 in the 2012-13 school year, compared to $72,000 in 2006-07. He attributes part of the success to installation of security cameras and after-hours security patrols.

“I believe these two factors alone have reduced graffiti on school grounds by 50 percent,” Wood wrote.

What works

When it comes to deterring graffiti and cutting the large sums public and private property owners spend on removing it, it appears that one thing works: Remove it as soon as possible.

“Get rid of it. Wash it off. Paint it over. If we stay on top of removal it really works,” said the Parks Department’s Vorderbrueggen.

Murals – such as the ones under railway overpasses downtown – serve as deterrents to some degree.

“A busy background is more of a deterrent than a design that offers big blocks of open space,” said Karen Mobley, program manager for the Spokane Arts Fund who previously worked for the city and oversaw mural development. “It also seems to work if there’s a high level of kid participation in painting the mural. Perhaps taggers respect other people’s free expression.”

A mural is not a surefire way to avoid graffiti.

“You just have to stay on top of it,” Mobley said. “It’s like dogs peeing on a fire hydrant: If one gets started, then they all go.”

Hillyard’s Rosler once had a paint off with a local tagger.

“He’d start on this big white fence, and I’d run out there and paint it over,” she said. “Then he’d start again. And I’d be back again. After a week of that he never came back.”

Rosler said the private property owners her group encounters are grateful for the help.

“There are many reasons why they don’t remove the graffiti – sometimes they just don’t know it’s there,” Rosler said. “Or they are disabled. Or they can’t afford to pay for having it removed.”

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