Most graffiti is not even reported to the police. Many citizens do not consider graffiti a real crime and feel there is little that police can do about it. Though it is unlikely that one incident is very costly, the cumulative public cost to clean up graffiti in the United States is more than $12 billion a year. The fear of crime and the deterioration of a neighborhood that the graffiti creates may be even more expensive.

A Foothold Crime

In a Broken Windows crime model, graffiti is one of those foothold crimes that leads to a neighborhood's decay. Neighborhoods plagued with graffiti often become breeding grounds for loitering, littering, loud music, and public urination. As "good" citizens begin to avoid "that side of town," the criminal element becomes more comfortable and these small public disorder crimes snowball into more serious criminal behaviors. When these more serious crimes flourish, it becomes difficult to assess the true cost of the graffiti offense; expenses mount in terms of prevention, arrests, incarceration, and lost revenue.

Graffiti is a widespread problem that plagues all communities throughout the country. Strongly associated with urban settings, graffiti is commonly found in public transportation hubs. In inner cities where the subway system runs all night, but is sparsely used, subway cars are frequent targets. Other canvases include any flat surface in unsupervised areas, including walls, overpasses, statues and monuments, bridges, billboards, and the flat sides of mountains. Graffiti can appear on any surface open to public view.

Just as graffiti can appear anywhere and has different meanings to different viewers, the crime of placing the graffiti has different meanings to different criminal actors. For some, placing graffiti is a rite of passage. Egged on by cohorts close in age, this spontaneous and generally harmless graffiti is placed by bored teenagers looking for acceptance. Some actors place graffiti just for the thrill of doing something illegal; they take solace in knowing that no individual is hurt and if they are caught the consequences will be light. And some graffiti is even thought of as "art," motivated by the actor's expression of self.

Other graffiti has a darker purpose. This ideological graffiti is usually motivated by a political, religious, or ethnic bias, and often crosses the line and becomes a hate crime. Another group of graffiti offenders are motivated by despair, anger, boredom, and lack of supervision. Police should be very concerned with this group because these are the same factors that lead to gang membership.

Profiling the Taggers

Graffiti is not limited by class lines, but there is a clear profile of the average offender: male between 15 and 23 years old. They operate in groups often with older members who are unemployed, under schooled, and generally not positively motivated. The graffiti tagging starts out as a relatively safe, anonymous way to kill a late night. Unfortunately, the excitement, notoriety, and acceptance derived from the act may lead vulnerable youths to more serious crimes and gang membership. Some research correlates graffiti with truancy and alcohol/illegal drug use.

So are the police dealing with a harmless juvenile prank or are they observing precursive gang membership behavior? To answer this important question, officers must first determine how much graffiti there is and how many different persons or groups seem to be doing the tagging. Does the graffiti seem to be clustered around big community events (rival high school football games, graduation, etc.)? What is the general tone of the graffiti—humorous? Patriotic? Angry? Hateful? Does it target one group? Who is victimized by the graffiti? Are individuals or segments of the community put in fear by the etchings? Does the community seem to tolerate the graffiti or do they associate it with other unacceptable behavior (a community survey will help answer this question)? Is there evidence of other unacceptable public behavior around the scene of the graffiti (i.e., soiled condoms, empty alcoholic beverage containers, hypodermic syringes, etc.)? The nature of the graffiti and community feedback will help chart the police response.

Tracking the Tags

It must first be understood that graffiti is not only a police problem. The actual criminal statutes surrounding the illegal placement of writings in public places are usually pretty mild. Arresting graffiti taggers by itself is generally viewed as a weak response. Police can lead the way by articulating a clear path by which graffiti crimes will be reduced.

Once the actor's motivation has been determined, research shows the best response to graffiti is two-pronged: rapid identification and swift removal. This process removes the greatest motivation for a graffiti tagger: having the work seen.

To accomplish this goal, two different workforces are needed. The first group is tasked with locating the graffiti. The second group is charged with removing or covering it.

The officer on patrol is clearly a member of the first group. Areas susceptible to graffiti should be given extra attention. Any marking should be immediately noted in a brief report; the first line supervisor must make sure this report is immediately sent up the chain to the proper responding entity.

Officers on patrol can also be supplemented by volunteers and other civic-minded citizens who conduct graffiti identification patrols. These patrols would expose the civilians to minimum risk as long as they understand they are not to attempt to stop anyone placing graffiti. Their only job is to report graffiti. This task can be carried out by an Explorer group or a neighborhood watch program.

Also, citizens whose jobs force them to travel throughout the town (such as truck drivers, bus drivers, cab drivers, public service workers, etc.) should be provided with an easy way to quickly report graffiti they observe. Anonymous graffiti tip lines or Websites may enhance reporting.

Cleaning It Up

Once the graffiti has been identified, it must be quickly removed. Failure to do so will dishearten the graffiti locators and embolden the graffiti taggers. Some jurisdictions hold property owners responsible for graffiti removal. This forces the victim to remove the graffiti or face a fine. This method often does not work where there is an absentee landlord. By the time he is notified and responds, quite a bit of time will have passed. Some towns clean up the graffiti immediately, then bill the property owner.

Most jurisdictions staff a graffiti removal team with non-violent criminal offenders and serious traffic offenders. As part of a probation or pre-trial deal, these offenders are supervised as they clean the graffiti. This court-ordered penalty serves the community by having the offender repay his debt to society in a visually tangible way. Victims receive direct restitution from offenders, reflecting a restorative justice approach.

Graffiti is a tricky problem for many police departments. It is rarely reported and it is difficult to catch a tagger in the act. In some communities, it has gone on for generations and is an informally accepted rite of passage. In other communities, the graffiti may be foretelling of a more troubling problem—specifically gang membership. Though graffiti is generally a low police priority, departments must be ready to respond if the problem becomes threatening or serious.