In Asheville, graffiti is a either a bane or a boon, depending on your perspective. Some see it as a serious problem, a symptom of urban decay. To others, it’s means for self-expression, a form of so-called “urban art.” For many local businesses and residents, graffiti is just a nuisance crime that adds an unwelcome cleanup bill — and one that the local police give a fairly low priority to. Until now, that is.
Earlier today, the Asheville Police Department announced the arrest of three people—John Molnar, 24; Brandon Teffner, 17; and Jesse Scott-Zinni, 18—all accused of “graffiti related charges” in the downtown area. According to the press release, the APD has recently formed an internal task force empowered to “target the graffiti problem plaguing the downtown area.” Equipped with digital cameras and a growing database of known “tags” and suspects, the task force has begun surveillance operations “to apprehend persons involved in causing graffiti damage.”
Is this a true crack down on graffiti? To find out, Xpress spoke with APD spokesperson Capt. Tim Splain.
Mountain Xpress: When did the anti-graffiti initiative start, and what started it?
Capt. Tim Splain: It’s been a topic of conversation for a very long time, and we wanted to formalize what our effort was. We’ve always arrested people for damaging private property or defacing public property. But, with such an increase in visible graffiti in the downtown area, we wanted to make sure that we had some kind of formal mechanism in place to enforce those laws. Our patrol officers are out in the field every day, and they see it. They know what’s already out there, and they see the new stuff, and can account for it much more readily than anyone else in the department.
Xpress: How are they addressing the graffiti problem?
Splain: What we’ve done is to supply them with digital cameras so that they can document the graffiti on a daily basis. They can catalog it, which allows us to compile a database of tags and graffiti work. We’ll also be doing surveillance work, so that we can not only catch people doing it, but so that we can backtrack and attribute their tag or symbol for however many cases we have outstanding.
Xpress: It that a fairly reliable method? It seems like there would be problems with just identifying a vandal from just a style or a symbol.
Splain: What we find is that most people either take pictures of their artwork, or they have “tag books,” which contain hand drawings and sketches, in their possession. They may also have them in their residence, which is why we’re looking at building these databases. If we have enough probable cause, we can get search warrants based on the arrests. With a warrant, we can see if they have tag-books, stencils or other materials there that are used to do the tagging.
Xpress: What kind of sentences or penalties are being faced by people who are arrested for graffiti?
Splain: It’s a fairly minor misdemeanor. Generally speaking, people get probation for it, and it doesn’t usually carry an active jail sentence. But, the thing we’re concerned with getting is the restitution that can be imposed by the courts. That can help the business owners and residents get reimbursed for the cleanup of their property. If you are a downtown business owner who is diligent about cleaning up after your business gets tagged or marked, graffiti becomes an ongoing cost. Especially for some of the locations that are the favorite spots that are painted on or tagged all the time. It can be a significant ongoing cost, and we want to allow the courts to help them offset that.
Xpress: Is it art?
Splain: To some it’s art, and there is some legitimately impressive work out there. But, if you are doing that work on other people’s property where they don’t want you to do it, it’s a crime. And, for visitors and a lot of residents, it gives the air of the city being unsafe. It seems like there isn’t control here. We want to help with that as best we can. Our job is to enforce the laws, and damaging and defacing property is a legitimate crime. We’re going to try to reduce the visible graffiti in the downtown area, and anywhere else in the city.
Xpress: This must put the APD in an awkward position. On one hand, there are probably many in the community that are supportive of what they see as genuine urban art. On the other hand, there must be constant complaints from businesses and residents who are desperately trying to keep people from painting on their buildings.
Splain: That’s absolutely correct. I’ve worked and served on downtown task forces and commissions, and the one thing you come to recognize is that there are plenty of people who would love to have a forum for this kind of art. Many of us in the police department support the idea of a designated area for this kind of art, and even contests or things like that. We would welcome some legitimate forum for people to do this kind of thing. But, what we can’t support is indiscriminate damage to other people’s property.
Xpress: Are you concerned at all that some people will criticize you for putting so much effort into catching graffiti artists when there are other, more pressing crimes that could benefit from added manpower and investigation.
Splain: That’s the double-edged sword that we face every day. Just because we pull people over for running red lights doesn’t mean that we aren’t also trying to catch drug dealers and murderers. We dedicate the majority of our resources towards solving those serious crimes. But the one thing that’s been shown in many national studies is that when you don’t deal with the quality of life issues and nuisance crimes, the other serious crimes escalate. There’s a perception that there’s a lack of social control. When New York City did a big crackdown on graffiti and other minor crimes, it actually helped to reduce their overall crime issues throughout the cities. We can’t pick and choose every crime, but this is a crime that is in the public eye. It causes a negative perception our downtown area.
— Steve Shanfelt, A&E reporter