In this week's cover story, “Los Angeles' War on Street Artists,” we reveal that the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, with the help of city and county prosecutors, figured out how to try all graffiti artists as gangsters in court.
In short: For the last five years or so, the sheriff has been treating all graffiti crews as “criminal street gangs” under the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act), thus turning every tag into a felony crime by way of “gang enhancement.”
Pretty intense, for a nonviolent crime. And it turns out that's not the only trick up the sheriff's sleeve:
While on a ride-along with the department, L.A. Weekly was introduced to another fascinating enforcement tactic in the war against graffiti. It's currently being tested in the nowhere city of Gardena — a mixed-race, relatively low-income community in the South Bay.
Any act of vandalism that costs over $400 to repair is considered a felony; anything that costs less than $400 is a misdemeanor. But in Gardena, explained Sheriff's Sgt. Christian Meadows, all tags are considered felonies because they all cost over $400 to clean up.
We had been trolling through the sheriff's countywide graffiti database, a photo archive called T.A.G.R.S., for a certain moniker. (The name “Realm” had been scrawled all over the skateboard and backpack of a kid that the sheriff had just arrested at Metro's Blue Line station.) And when the sergeant came across a “Realm” tag in Gardena, his face lit up.
The tag would instantly earn its author a felony charge, said Meadows — because in Gardena, only city workers clean up graffiti.
A little background: Most cities and counties contract with graffiti-buffing companies like Graffiti Control Systems to clear the public space of unwanted tags. Jeff Woods, general manager of that company, tells L.A. Weekly that with a private contractor, your average piece of graffiti costs about $150 to buff — all labor and and time and materials considered.
But when you hire government workers, Woods explains, that number shoots up, because their unions have oftentimes secured them much higher salaries and benefit packages.
Which is all fine and dandy, depending on which side of the union debate you fall on. But should workers' salaries be able to interfere with the justice system, and affect the severity of a criminal sentence?
Gardena Police Detective Luis Villanueva, who calls himself the “school resource and graffiti intelligence” specialist for the city's police department, confirms that he has figured out a way to turn turn every single tag into a felony.
A sole city employee handles all the graffiti buffing in Gardena, says Villanueva. And in calculating the total cost of removing a tag, not only does the detective factor in said employee's salary and benefits, but he adds his own salary in there, too, to compensate the taxpayers for the time Villanueva spent investigating the case.
After all is said and done, he says, most tags end up being priced between $500 to $1,000 — and even more than that, if the buff paint camouflages so terribly that the wall has to be replaced.
The District Attorney's Office loves his new cost-analysis system, says Officer Villanueva, because it makes graffiti vandalism easier to prosecute. Even if the tagger settles with the D.A. by agreeing to pay full restitution and go on probation (which is common), that's a great way of re-filling city coffers, and puts the vandal right where the cops want him: Now they can search his house at any time for graffiti tools.
One kid, claims Villanueva, felt so bad about the damage he had done to the city that he took out $37,000 in loans and handed the detective a check for the full amount.
It's no coincidence that this insta-felony method of calculating graffiti cleanup costs is making its debut in Gardena. Bizarrely, the town of around 60,000 is run by Mayor Paul Tanaka — the same guy who serves as second-in-command, or “undersheriff,” at the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
Officer Villanueva confirms that, indeed, Gardena's special method of punishing graffiti vandals was a brainchild of Undersheriff Tanaka.
The sheriff's own “Special Problems Unit,” as we revealed in our cover story this week, “is widely recognized as one of the most ruthless and effective anti-graffiti task forces on Earth, and it has mastered the all-crew takedown, according to critics such as the ACLU and admirers such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police.”
And Undersheriff Tanaka, for his part, has a reputation of looking past brazen and brutal tactics on the part of his deputies. Critics see him as a “shadow leader” who does what he wants, when he wants as head Sheriff Lee Baca turns a blind eye.
Similarly, in L.A.'s war against graffiti — which intensifies as the spray-paint style becomes more and more popular in the mainstream — anything goes. As many law-enforcement personnel will tell you, taggers are addicts, and the only way to make them stop is to hit them over the head with such staggering charges that throwing up just isn't worth it anymore.
L.A. graffiti historian Steve Grody, who heavily informed the cover story, feels there needs to be a more nuanced approach to punishing young taggers.
According to [Grody], almost every graffiti artist currently taking galleries by storm started out as a garden-variety tagger.
“People want the rain without the thunder and the lightning,” Grody says. “If you're going to let a culture have some sense of self-expression, then that includes youth-movement things. That doesn't mean all 'bombing' should be left alone. [But] when it's treated as though it's some sort of horrible, harmful felony, it's out of balance.”