Taggers turning violent and becoming more like gangs, police say
Saturday, Oct 4 2008 12:00 PM|
Last Updated: Monday, Oct 6 2008 7:31 AM
They scribble on street signs, walls and mailboxes in an attempt to gain neighborhood fame. But some taggers, who are usually considered nothing more than a nuisance, are now turning into gangsters.
The city gets about 20 to 30 calls a day to cleanup graffiti. Last year it was at about 65 calls a day, said Sean Cacal, city supervisor for the anti-graffiti program. The county graffiti program has also seen a drop in graffiti, said Rick Ward, who oversees the graffiti program in the county.
The drop, they say, is credit to the collaboration among law enforcement, probation department, the district attorney's office, schools and community's focus on stopping graffiti.
The city allocated about $1.7 million this year to fight graffiti. The county spends about $100,000 annually on paint and material alone.
Ten years ago, Bakersfield Police Department had no officers dedicated specifically to graffiti. There's been as many as four at one point, in 2006, but now there are two in place.
The Kern County Sheriff's Department has one deputy who investigates graffiti cases, but he does that part time.
When graffiti cleanup crews go out, they take digital photos of the tags and submit them to the officers. Officers then catalog them in a computer database categorizing them by nicknames and crew names. The departments are awaiting new surveillance equipment and a better database and mapping systems.
In the meantime, officials say, it’s important for residents to report graffiti to the graffiti hotline, 32-ERASE.
“If you don't buy a lottery ticket, you'll never win,” said graffiti police officer Mitch Galland said. “If you don't call us, we'll never catch them. That kid you see tagging could open up a whole crew for us.”
‘IT’S GOTTEN SERIOUS’
When Moses Ramiro Villegas, 18, was found shot to death Wednesday morning at the base of a Highway 178 pedestrian crossing, the Bakersfield Police graffiti unit, called GHOST, was called out.
Villegas was laying dead on top of graffiti. A partial footprint of blue paint could be seen next to his body.
Officials feared the escalating violence among taggers peaked, and the homicide was tagging related. It would have been the first of its kind in the city, officials said.
Fortunately, officials said, graffiti didn't appear to play a role.
Instead occurring more often these days are assaults among rival taggers. Using bats and chains, they are sometimes almost paralyzing each other, said graffiti police officer Jose Galvan.
“It's gotten serious,” he said.
Officials estimate there are about 30 or more multiple-member tagging crews in Bakersfield. Of those, about half a dozen are considered violent.
Law enforcement refused to identify any of the tagging crews for fear they would gain recognition.
STRIVE FOR FAME
The type of tagging has changed in the last few years, said graffiti police officer Mitch Galland. About 10 years ago, a majority of graffiti came from the “piecers.” They painted murals as a form of expression, and were seen as nonviolent.
A smaller percentage were taggers with no gang affiliation.
Only a few were “tag-bangers,” gang members marking gang territory with tags, or taggers affiliating themselves with gangs.
They all do what they do for the same reason — recognition.
“Most of the guys are driven by that,” Galland said. “They need to be famous.”
Now, the “piecer” population is dwindling. More prevalent now are tagging crews, but they are turning to violence.
Earlier this year, two rival tagging crews began fist fighting at South High School when one grabbed a bat and hit a rival in the head. The victim was sent to the hospital and was nearly paralyzed, officers said. The victim refused to give police information, however.
The full scope of the violence is difficult to measure because tag-bangers prefer to keep it “in house” and don’t go to police, Galvan said.
The tag-bangers are not considered traditional gang members. They have no territory, and they don't kill each other, at least not yet,” said police Sgt. Steve London.
One tagging-related incident almost turned deadly in July 2003. John Gardenshire, a Bakersfield resident, tried to stop Hector Melgoza from tagging on a sign. Melgoza shot Gardenshire, nearly killing him. He was later sentenced to 28 years in prison.
For now, assaults on rival crews are helping the district attorney's office add a gang enhancement, something new as of this year.
Craig Smith, a prosecutor in the juvenile department within the district attorney's office, said the gang enhancement in addition to vandalism could mean the difference between community service with probation compared to serving time in juvenile hall or jail.
Between July 2006 and 2007, the district attorney's office prosecuted 119 juvenile gang members. From July 2007 to 2008, that number more than doubled to 278. One reason for the increase is because of the attention brought against graffiti.
“Juveniles recognize they are being targeted,” Smith said. “This may not stop all of them, but it may stop some of them.”
Police arrested 19-year-old Noel Reyes Alegria, who goes by Trill, on Thursday. Police identified him as being a part of MOB tagging crew. He is set to be arraigned for two felonies Oct. 17 — vandalism and participating in a street gang. Vandalism, which is attached with graffiti crimes, above $400 is considered a felony.
Jorge Morales, 19, was also caught tagging when he was 17. He served some time in Lerdo Jail for it.
He said he thinks it's unfair that taggers could go to jail because officers consider them as gang members, he said.
“I don't really like it,” Morales said. “Going to jail for writing on the wall?”
Morales said he no longer tags because “it's not worth it.”
That's what officers are hoping other taggers say, London said.
“We won't give up, and eventually they will.”