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Graffiti: How to take a nuisance crime, extract evidence and recoup money

Close analysis can reveal valuable information that your department can use as evidence to seek prosecution and restitution

Sponsored by GraffitiTracker

By Laura Neitzel, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

When Timothy Kephart was in graduate school and looking for a job in criminal justice, little did he know that the entry-level crime analyst position he took at the city of Carson, California, would lead to a lifelong career. His first task was to go out every day and take pictures of the new graffiti that had appeared overnight.


He had no idea what it all meant, so Kephart sought help from a gang detective at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, who taught him how to read the code. After a few months of gathering daily photos, Kephart noticed patterns emerging. He realized that graffiti was a language that could be deciphered to provide law enforcement with clues to the tagger’s identity, as well as actionable intelligence about gang affiliations, rivalries and threats.

 “I realized that if law enforcement had this information, it could help them not only address the graffiti problem on the tagging side, it also would give the gang intelligence unit information they needed,” Kephart, founder of GraffitiTracker, said. “Law enforcement can use the information extracted from the gang graffiti to track gang membership, prove motive for murder or even prevent a murder.”

Recognizing different kinds of graffiti

Using intelligence gained from gang graffiti to halt escalation of gang violence is a worthy goal in itself. But nationally, gang graffiti represents only 10 percent of all graffiti. Another 5 to 10 percent is generic “Bobby loves Sue”-type graffiti.

The vast majority, 80 percent, is tagging graffiti. That’s where Kephart thinks law enforcement should be focusing their efforts in order to put a curb on the problem.

The very nature of tagging graffiti – in which the tag is the offender's personal alias, acronym or marking – makes tagging vandalism a unique crime in that the perpetrator brazenly leaves clues to his or her identity and the location of the crime.

“A tagger’s motivation is for fame and notoriety. It’s the only crime that I'm familiar with where they sign their name,” said Kephart.

Denver Partners Against Graffiti describes tagging vandalism as “like logo placement or brand advertising. The primary goal of tagging is to advertise the vandal's ‘tag’ (or street name) and ‘crew’ (tagging group or gang set) and get recognition from others for prominent placement of tags throughout the city.”

Recognizing that unabated graffiti can lead to a decline in property values and other detriments to the community, common practice is to paint over graffiti within 24 to 48 hours. Since the graffiti tagger is looking for recognition, the less time the tag remains visible, the less rewarding it is for the tagger. Unfortunately, this often just leaves a fresh canvas, inviting a challenge for another tagger to tag the same spot or for the original tagger to reinforce ownership.

This tag-paint-tag-paint game between police and graffiti vandals can seem like an endless cycle, leaving many law enforcement agencies to consider tagging graffiti as a low-level, nuisance crime that is just part of the status quo of any community. Consequently, many agencies and municipalities without an advanced graffiti reduction strategy resign themselves to routinely budgeting thousands of dollars for graffiti abatement each year without realizing there is a way to recoup some of that cost.

Abatement vs. Evidence

By spending money on abatement before extracting evidence, Kephart realized that police were missing the opportunity to gain restitution from graffiti vandals. So he created GraffitiTracker, an actionable, intelligence-based system that helps agencies document tagging graffiti and preserve evidence that can be used to identify a suspect and build a case. Within minutes, graffiti evidence can be documented and uploaded to a database for analysis, and abatement can proceed.

GraffitiTracker provides its clients access to a free mobile app so any police officer, public works department worker or even a citizen volunteer can photograph graffiti. The location is automatically tracked with the photograph and uploaded to a secure, web-based system. Within 24 hours of submission, GraffitiTracker analysts extract key pieces of evidence that can be used for investigation. The system builds a database of graffiti by the vandal’s tag or crew and location in order to connect incidents and create a complete profile of activity by tagger and crew.

“When we connect that data, we can see that this tagger has appeared with this tagger 15 different times,” said Kephart. “If you catch one tagger, there's a likelihood he's going to lead you to another.”

An advantage of GraffitiTracker is the experience of its human analysts in decoding gang graffiti and alerting law enforcement to potential threats.

“If the analysts see that a gang threatens to kill somebody from another gang, they immediately put that information into a report and send it via email to law enforcement,” said Kephart.

To date, GraffitiTracker has analyzed over 5 million photographs, helped police identify and arrest over 4,000 graffiti vandals and helped municipalities recoup over $9 million in restitution.


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