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The potential of the graffiti warrant

It can hold the key to solving more and bigger crimes


One of the first things I did was collect all the solved and unsolved graffiti reports for our station area. I also looked at Graffiti Tracker to identify the 20 most prolific tagging monikers and crews in our area.

image/Graffiti Tracker

By Wayde Farrell

In November 2006, I had been assigned to a special patrol team for about four years. We didn’t get assigned calls. My station captain asked me to see what I could do about the graffiti in our area. My response was, “Screw that! What, have we solved all the toilet-papered houses and ‘ring and run’ capers?”

I said that to myself. What I said out loud was, “Can I think about it over the weekend?” I fully intended to find a more tactful way to decline the request.

On my way home, I paid attention to the graffiti that covered the commercial buildings and rear walls of residential buildings that faced the freeway, not to mention the billboards, overpasses and bridge supports. This prevalence did not exist where I lived in south Orange County, California. If it did, I am certain the value of my home would drop by tens of thousands of dollars. Thinking about it that way, and knowing most people have their money tied up in their homes, it dawned on me that taggers were basically costing property owners tens of thousands of dollars in equity where I worked in the Carson area. In addition, most people didn’t recognize the difference between graffiti that is “art” and graffiti associated with gangs.

The average Joe sees graffiti and thinks, “This is a bad area,” and they go eat or shop a little farther down the road, where graffiti is less prevalent, so business owners lose money too. Based on that thought process, I took the job.

Graffiti was not a high priority on our station investigators’ to-do lists. If a graffiti report came in, it was listed as “pending” and closed out. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has a graffiti detail for the local metro rail. I contacted them about how to get started. They gave me a couple of warrant exemplars and an explanation of what tagging crews were, how to decipher the illegible scrawls and how to break down the nonsensical random combinations of letters and numbers. After that, I was pretty much left to my own devices.

To catch a tagger

The city of Carson contracted with a company called Graffiti Tracker to photograph and catalog all graffiti the city removed. But while the city was spending millions of dollars to remove graffiti, nobody was doing any investigative follow-up.

One of the first things I did was collect all the solved and unsolved graffiti reports for our station area. I also looked at Graffiti Tracker to identify the 20 most prolific tagging monikers and crews in our area. I looked at my solved graffiti reports, which were all arrests by patrol, and saw several of my top taggers had been arrested, and their monikers were on their booking slips.

I made a spreadsheet that listed the top 20 most prolific monikers. If I had the information, I included who the person was, their tagging crew, etc. I printed out the images from Graffiti Tracker that involved their monikers. I also contacted our local high school and middle school deans. They were very helpful. Many of my unidentified taggers were known by name to the school deans. Let’s face it: A kid who tags is probably not the most well-behaved student.

The school lost-and-found was also helpful. Schoolbooks, backpacks and other student belongings often have the owner’s tagging moniker written on them right along with their real names. Doing this helped me add to my list of both known and unknown taggers because very often monikers appeared together.

One other thing I did was search social media for both the taggers I’d identified and those I hadn’t. MySpace, Facebook and YouTube were very helpful. At that time, a lot of people didn’t bother to secure their social media, so I could look at a lot of them without a warrant. I could see taggers being referred to by their real names and their monikers, and sometimes they posted their tags. I looked at sites that belonged to people they interacted with and identified more taggers. If I typed “Spaz vs” into YouTube, there was a very good chance I’d find a video of “Spaz” in a fistfight with some other tagger. This way I was able to identify more taggers. Eventually, I started writing search warrants for these social media sites. I once wrote a MySpace warrant for 67 sites associated with my target. It helps to be a little OCDish to do this.

I had enough info to get a search warrant for my top tagger and five members of my top tagging crew, but I was still working out how to write an easily understandable arrest report that might involve multiple suspects and dozens of victims, with any number of incidents per victim and any combination of suspects per incident. I worked closely with the filing DA to come up with an easy-to-understand format. I’d work out a format, take it to him, he’d make some critiques, and I’d rework it. This took a few days.

My next step was to write a warrant for our area’s most prolific tagger using the exemplars I’d been given. I confiscated everything. Clothing with his moniker, loose spray tips, markers, spray cans, drawings – everything that identified him as my suspect. I didn’t need to take it all, but I did because if I came back in a few months because he was tagging again, I didn’t want him to be able to say, “Oh, that’s from last year.”

How to extract a confession

This guy was a straight tagger with no gang affiliation. It was surprisingly easy to get him to confess.

I simply showed him everything I had on him and said, “Look, I got a search warrant and an arrest warrant for you from the judge, so he’s already convinced I have probable cause that you are my guy. Now I have all this other stuff from your house to add to my evidence. Do you think a jury is going to believe you aren’t the guy?

“So look,” I continued, “you don’t have any serious record. I’d like to clear up all these unsolved cases along with this case. If we can do that, I’ll ask the DA to give you probation. I’m sure you have plenty of friends on probation, but you may not really understand what it is. Basically, the judge sets certain rules for you to follow. You have to obey your parents. You have to keep your grades up. You have to be in your house by 10 p.m. – basically rules you should be following anyway. Any cases we can’t clear up are still open cases. If I find out you were involved in them, I can come after you again. So it’s best we clear up anything you were involved in.”

I arrested around 100 taggers during the six years I did this. Only one guy declined to cooperate fully with me, and the DA always gave probation, except twice. One of those guys got arrested three more times before he went to court on my case. The other got arrested five more times, including the night before he went to court on my case.

Another big advantage of graffiti warrants was that about half my warrants turned up other felonies – narcotics and guns being the most common. The second of these warrants turned up a murder gun. Even our gang unit realized what a great tool they were and asked me to show them how to write them. A graffiti warrant is to a house what a broken taillight on a car driven by a guy with a suspended driver’s license is to a car.

About the author

Wayde Farrell was a deputy with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department from January 1985 to November 2016 when he was medically retired as a field training officer after almost 32 years. He worked a patrol car for a couple of years on day shift (hated it), several years on the PM shift (liked it a lot) and several years on the graveyard shift (LOVED it). About half of his career was spent on various special teams like COPs where he wrote around 100 search warrants for various crimes. He was voted his station’s Deputy of the Year several times and received a certificate of commendation from the U.S. Congress.