Arrests by New York police for graffiti violations are up sharply, reports the Los Angeles Times: 2,585 last year, more than double the number from 2004, says Lt. Jeffrey Schneider of the Citywide Vandals Task Force. Graffiti police used to spend nights at stakeouts, peering through binoculars in the hope of catching a graffiti writer in the act. These days, they work more like street detectives. A beefed-up 70-officer squad gathers information with digital cameras, pays $500 for tips and matches tags with writers in a database, GraffitiStat.
Judges regard task force officers as expert witnesses, so eyewitness testimony is no longer essential to prosecution. Police have tried a long series of strategies over the last 40 years – most notably, in 1984, the Clean Car Program, which demanded that new graffiti be removed from subway trains within 72 hours. In response, vandals shifted their tactics to bridges and billboards, and, most recently, back to the windows of subway trains, where acid etches ghostly, indelible signatures. Eugene O’Donnell, who teaches police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that even in a city committed to prosecuting “quality of life” crimes, it is risky to treat graffiti writers like felons. “There’s a cost to us” when vandals destroy property, O’Donnell said. “But there’s also a cost when you destroy somebody’s life in the criminal justice system. The bottom line is there’s just one more marginalized person in society.”