Public Safety

County Wins Golden Watchdog for Leading Graffiti Fight

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association honored the County Thursday night with their highest award, a Grand Golden Watchdog, for a regional program that helps authorities catch, prosecute and recover costs from prolific graffiti vandals who damage property and degrade our quality of life.

“Graffiti vandals are no longer getting away with defacing neighborhoods and sticking taxpayers with cleanup costs,” said Chairman Cox, who accepted the association’s highest award for the County Thursday night. “We’ve found a smart, efficient way to tackle a problem that affects every San Diegan.”

The Taxpayer Association called the San Diego County Multi-Discipline Graffiti Abatement Program “groundbreaking” and recognized the County for its success in capturing restitution from graffiti vandals.

It was the second year in a row the County won the association’s Grand Golden Watchdog.  Last year, the County was awarded the highest honor for its Capital Improvement Program, which saved taxpayers nearly $1.5 billion in interest by paying cash for millions of square feet of new infrastructure project

The San Diego County Multi-Discipline Graffiti Abatement Program uses software called Graffiti Tracker to document acts of graffiti and link them to the responsible taggers, even if they cross jurisdictional boundaries. County Supervisor Greg Cox spearheaded the regional program that began in January 2011 after seeing how effectively the County’s Sheriff’s Department, two North County cities and District Attorney’s Office had used Graffiti Tracker to hold taggers accountable.

These days, participants include 13 public agencies representing the region’s unincorporated areas, mass transit systems and 18 cities.  As a member of SANDAG’s Public Safety Committee, Supervisor Cox led the effort to bring every jurisdiction in the region into the Graffiti Tracker program. To facilitate the project, the County of San Diego executed an amendment to its contract with Graffiti Tracker that added the 10 additional jurisdictions.

The relatively low-cost program—$346,800 for the region in its first 18 months—has the potential to deter millions of dollars in vandalism as taggers learn they will be caught, prosecuted and billed for the destruction they wreak on communities. Graffiti vandalism is indeed costly. In 2011, the region spent an estimated $16 million of public money to clean up 618,851 square feet of graffiti, according to a SANDAG analysis.

The potential to reduce the cost to taxpayers and hold the vandals themselves accountable—all for a relatively modest upfront cost to agencies — clearly appealed to the Taxpayer’s Association.

“In the program’s first year, restitution for graffiti cases rose from $170,626 in 2010 to $783,412 in 2011, more than enough to cover the $346,800 cost to operate the software,”   the association noted.

Graffiti Tracker is a commercial, Web-based program. Members of law enforcement or public works take pictures of graffiti with a GPS-enabled camera, and the photographs are uploaded to a database. Graffiti Tracker decodes the photographed “tags”—usually a vandal’s initials or nickname—and organizes them in a database. The location of identical tags can then be displayed on a map or a list, revealing patterns in place, time and frequency. Law enforcement can view a list of the top taggers in a city or region, look at the patterns of when and where the tagging occurred and use traditional investigative techniques to develop a suspect.

Or, when a tagger is caught in the act, a search of the database and the photos reveals similar marks helping police and prosecutors link a person or a group to widespread damage.

Just recently, the program showed its worth again. On April 30, 18-year-old Ramona Elena Montes was caught in the act by Vista deputies on “vandalism patrol” who then used Graffiti Tracker to link her to some 300 acts of graffiti. The arrest and further investigation led deputies to arrest a second member of Montes’ tagging crew, a 20-year-old suspected of 523 graffiti incidents that cost the city more than $154,000 in cleanup costs.

Undersheriff Ed Prendergast headed the Sheriff Department’s effort to adopt the technology in 2009.

Prendergast has said he’s confident the region wide use of Graffiti Tracker will stop and deter taggers throughout the San Diego County.

“Graffiti vandals do not respect jurisdictional boundaries.  Graffiti Tracker, in conjunction with a county-wide graffiti protocol, helps ensure that graffiti vandalism will be documented, investigated and prosecuted in a consistent manner,” Prendergast has said.   

Or, he said, in short:  “If you spray, you will pay!”

The County was one of three finalists in the Grand Golden Watchdog award category. There were nine overall awards distributed, including two Golden Watchdog awards.

The Golden Watchdog awards “recognize and honor smart, sensible practices and taxpayer-funded program,” said the association. On the flip side, other categories recognized government programs and services that the association deems“wasteful, inefficient or downright absurd use of taxpayer dollars”

The Taxpayers Association recognized the County with this year’s highest honor at its 18th Annual Goldens Awards Dinner at the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina.