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San Bernardino, CA’s law enforcement decodes gang graffiti to curb violence

September 23, 2013

San Bernardino, CA’s law enforcement agencies have found a way to use gang graffiti to their advantage. Gangs have long used graffiti as territory markers, to intimidate people testifying against them, and to lock horns with other gangs. Now, the San Bernardino County police are decoding this graffiti in an effort to crack down on gang violence.

Police can read graffiti to find out who’s behind it

Home to the third largest gang population in the country, San Bernardino faces a lot of gang violence. Many LA based gang members now operate in San Bernardino, where injunctions (basically restraining orders against gangs) don’t apply to them.

gang graffiti

When police see one gang crossing out the tag of another gang, they know they can expect violence. From Evan Bench.

In 2012, 1,483 graffiti related cases were filed by the district attorney’s office in San Bernardino. Graffiti on walls not only damages a property and devalues it, but also increases the chances of gang violence.

“One gang set crosses out another on the wall—now you know they’re having trouble with each other,” said Kevin Ford, Central Gang Unit Senior Investigator. Ford knows many graffiti alphabets and can read graffiti patterns to identify the gang behind the tag.

The next step is to clean up. “It’s kind of a war going on and so by removing it right away that eliminates the possibility of retaliation,” said Eddie El-Helou, a volunteer coordinator of the graffiti abatement program in San Luis Obispo County, also in California.

San Bernandino Gang Graffiti

Vandalism is a major way for gangs to mark their territory and warn rivals. Image by San Bernardino County DA.

Another tactic? Stopping the graffiti at its source

Law enforcement agencies are also using new computer software and new ordinances to pinpoint the perpetrators of the graffiti. Photographs of graffiti taken from a site can be electronically linked with those taken from other graffiti crime scenes around the Southland.

Officers are even working closely with schools and parents to identify minor taggers. Laws have also prohibited minors from keeping items used for vandalism, like aerosol paint cans and etching tools, unless they use them under parental supervision or in class.

The severity of the penalties for graffiti varies, depending on the cost of the damage. If the damage is under $400, it is punishable by up to one year in county jail and/or a fine of $1,000. Damages valued at more than $400 are punishable as a felony by up to three years in prison, and/or a fine of $10,000.

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