Taggers keep San Bernardino school police busy
By MELANIE C. JOHNSON and PAUL LAROCCO (The Press-Enterprise)
September 12, 2009
SAN BERNARDINO – Taggers leave few spots unmarked on and around San Bernardino school campuses.
Scrawled pen and crew names decorate curbs, sidewalks and tree trunks. Monikers mar no-trespassing signs and scar walls outside some classrooms.
San Bernardino City Unified School District Police Chief Gary Underwood said overall, the graffiti issue in and around schools is the worst he has seen it in recent years.
The peak was the start of the summer, and it was worst in the central part of the city, he said.
It’s a trend the district is trying to reverse, using computer technology to create a database of monikers and photos to aid in its investigations and acting fast to clean it up.
Underwood said keeping after graffiti is important because “if a community is not cleaning it up, and it continues to add up, that’s indicative of a community in decline — one that lacks hope and faith.”
Fontana Unified School District also taps into technology to combat tagging, relying on a state-of-the-art camera system at all campuses.
Chief Bob Ratcliffe said in the last two years, the school district has seen a $60,000 reduction in the cost of graffiti removal, largely because of the installation of the cameras.
Students know they are there, but they are secured inside domes so they can’t tell which way the lens is facing at any given moment, he said.
“It doesn’t take long for the word to travel,” he said. “It spread like wildfire.”
Damage from graffiti used to total well over $100,000 annually before the cameras. The district believes in them so much that it added cameras to elementary school campuses last year using $216,000 in state safety grant funding, he said.
San Bernardino schools also use video cameras on campus, but with much of the tagging done after dark the images often are grainy and hard to make out, police said.
To fight graffiti, officers carry digital cameras to capture images and then upload them into a database.
Underwood likened the work officers and trained campus security officers do to “intelligence gathering.” They always are on the lookout for students who have heavily tagged notebooks, known as “bibles.” The art books have construction paper that features their tags and monikers.
Sgt. Stephen Donahue, who oversees training of the district’s 55 campus security officers, described one recent trend toward using “slap tags.” Taggers steal stacks of postal labels, inscribe their monikers onto them with markers and then stick the tags on walls.
“It’s an easy way for them to walk by quickly and leave their mark,” he said.
Donahue and Underwood said tagging crews have become well organized — using two-way radios to alert each other if law enforcement is near. That way, one teen can be tagging while the other serves as the lookout.
On a recent afternoon, Sgt. Eric Vetere toured San Bernardino campuses and nearby areas littered with graffiti. Atop a hill overlooking Pacific High School, he pointed out a water tower that had been nearly covered by tagging monikers.
“Tagger graffiti is for fame,” said Vetere, who specializes in gangs and graffiti. “That’s why you see it everywhere.”
On the way to the station, Vetere stopped two youths after they averted their eyes from him suspiciously, he said. He quizzed them about their probation records. When two other youths on skateboards cruised by, he stopped them to look at the markings on their purple baseball caps, which he said resembled tagging.
Vetere said school police are seeing an increase in taggers joining up with gangs, and some carrying weapons. The taggers get protection and the gangs can use them to publicize their names and do some of their work, he said.
Some taggers graduate to more serious crimes such as burglary and car thefts, police said.
District Police Officer Alex Raya, who also specializes in gangs and graffiti, called items like notebooks and backpacks that contain graffiti “tell-tale stuff” that can reveal information about a student’s involvement in graffiti and tagging crews. He said he has noticed that most start about age 13.
Tools include acrylic paint, aerosol spray cans, rollers, glass etchers, permanent markers, stencils and slap tags, he said.
Right now there are quite a few tagging crews at work, he said.
“You’ve got to keep up with them on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of time.”