May 22, 2012 |

Graffiti Task Force effective in fighting vandalism in city

Detectives from the Graffiti Task Force, and crime prevention Officer Christine Luffey, were the guest speakers at the May meeting of the Carrick/Overbrook Block Watch.

Detectives Alphonso Sloan and Daniel Sullivan of the Graffiti Task Force discussed their efforts in the investigation of graffiti crimes. The third member of the team, Frank Rende, was not present.

The officers said graffiti is a crime that attacks quality of life things, and can be costly to homeowners and businesses through clean-up costs and lowered property values.

It is a national problem, and sends the message the neighborhood is unsafe or in decline.

The task force was formed five years ago; it began with an empty office, a file cabinet, and three computers.

The three most targeted areas for graffiti vandals are the South Side, Strip District, and Carrick.

The officers asked attendees who witness graffiti vandalizing to call 911, as they follow up on all graffiti leads.

The task force has a 100 percent conviction rate. Everyone who has been arrested and charged has either pleaded guilty or was found guilty.

The goal of taggers is fame, so they paint in public places. The more fearless the act, the more respect the vandal receives from peers.

Residents should also call 911 if they see juveniles on the street after midnight with backpacks. Most likely the backpacks contain art supplies, gloves, markers, clanging cans, and stencil for tagging. The vandals might also hide materials in oversized coats with pockets.

Since the task force was formed, the taggers on the original Top 10 List of city graffiti vandals have been arrested, including a prolific vandal with a moniker of HERT. He served two years in state prison and was released.

The arrest of another prolific tagger, Daniel Montano, marked the biggest graffiti prosecution in U.S. history to date. His vandalism tab was $713,800.

He served his sentence of two-and-a-half to five years in state prison, followed by 10 years probation. He must pay restitution of $242,000.

Taggers operate in groups, or crews, with names like FTC ("full-time crew"), HGH ("home-grown heroes"), and MHA ("most-hated artists"). They come from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds, but are mostly in the 15-23 age group.

For gang graffiti, letters are written upside down. Much of it is done in the same color, with letters crossed out. Gang taggers are dangerous, the detectives said, as they are known to carry weapons. Residents should not approach them; call 911 if they see it occurring.

Many taggers fall into the juvenile age range and attend local high schools.

"We are pro-active. We talk to art classes at Carrick High School," Det. Sloan said.

Unfortunately, the task force's success often serves to entice out-of-town vandals to travel here and try to outsmart police to increase their street credibility.

The task force's goal is to arrest the crew leader as often members see what is happening to the leader and back off.

The detectives told attendees if their property is vandalized, they must file a police report through 911 for Graffiti Busters to clean their property.

"We work hand-in-hand with these guys," Det. Sloan said of Graffiti Busters.

A local graffiti group, the Carrick T.A.G. Group, recommends these steps to help alleviate graffiti vandalism: call 911 as soon as possible if property gets tagged; and remove the graffiti once a report has been filed and photos taken (the property owner can remove it themselves or call Graffiti Busters at 412-255-2872).

If they see graffiti happening, call 911, and try to get a good description of the vandal.

If the property has been graffitied for a long period of time, call 311, and contact a council member's office to file a complaint.

To a question about a mailbox which was vandalized with paint, Det. Sullivan told the resident he can try to clean off the paint, but he cannot repaint it as that would be illegal. Instead, report it to the postal service.

Next, Officer Luffey said there were 18 drug arrests last month in Carrick.

"We are committed to making Carrick a better place to live," she said.

In other news, attendees agreed residents must stick together and work to take back their neighborhoods.

To concerns about pit bulls, Officer Luffey said the animals are exploited more than any other dogs in the U.S.

The non-profit Hello Bully organization is run by volunteers who work to rescue, rehabilitate, and repair the reputation of the pit bull terrier.

For free spaying/neutering, adoption, and other information on pit bulls, visit: www.hellobully.com.

To a question about illegal street parking, Officer Luffey said to call 911.

Attendee and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak informed attendees that the recreation center facilities at Phillips Park are being remodeled.

Carol Anthony, who conducted the meeting, said she is disappointed the number of attendees at the block watch meeting has been dropping. The meeting needs greater attendance, she said, and for more block watches to form in the neighborhood.

She asked residents to go out into the neighborhood and get more people involved.

An Aug. 7 national Night Out celebration in Carrick is in the initial planning stages.

The evening concluded with some brief announcements by Liz Style, of the Mayor's Office, of upcoming events.

The next Carrick/Overbrook Block Watch meeting will be at 7 p.m. on June 4 in the Pittsburgh Concord K-5 auditorium.

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