Bloomberg’s (Expensive) War on Graffiti

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Since the late 1970’s the New York Transit Authority and Police Department have been waging a suspiciously quiet yet expensive “war” on graffiti. According to Getting Up: Subway Graffiti in New York, the State has invested over $150 million in graffiti removal and prevention over the past three decades. In the 1980’s the “Vandals Task Force” or “Vandal Squad,” was established as a separate, specialized police unit, and by 1996 the official “Anti-Graffiti Ordinance” (http://www.anti-graffiti.org/localrol.htm) was introduced.

Beginning in October 2004, Mayor Bloomberg’s community affairs unit began the most intense and public graffiti crackdown yet, expanding the Vandals Task Force and establishing new laws, programs and regulations.

Despite the amount of time, money and effort invested in this endeavor, Bloomberg’s website only offers a brief and vague description of the “City-wide effort…to keep New York beautiful” emphasizing clean-up projects but failing to address other graffiti-related problems such as urban decay and gang violence.

In 2004, Bloomberg passed a law that banned the possession of “an aerosol spray paint can, broad-tipped indelible marker, or etching acid…with an intent to make graffiti.” In 2005 he revised the 1996 Anti-Graffiti Ordinance, stiffening pre-existing penalties, introducing new regulations, and raising fines for both writers and vendors. For example, minors must have a signed permission slip to purchase materials or create indoor work. Fines now range from $100 to $1500 dollars depending on the level of damage and previous arrests. The mayor also changed the legal age to purchase graffiti products from 18 to 21, and introduced what graffiti writers call the “three-strikes-your-out” plan: three arrests lead to an automatic and permanent felony charge.

Recently, a “centralized intelligence database” has been introduced, which identifies and tracks known graffiti vandal’s tags. This helps The Vandal Squad build long-term cases on writers rather than making immediate arrests, greatly increasing jail time.

Bloomberg has made graffiti a public issue by introducing “community cleanup” projects which provide neighborhoods with kits “of up to 26 gallons of paint, 26 roller sleeves, and 12 roller frames” to paint over graffiti. He has also added the Task Force to the 311 system, categorizing all graffiti complaints as “urgent.” According to a recent New York Times article, Taking Aim Again at Graffiti Tools the number of calls has jumped from 2,661 in 2004 to 7,407 calls in 2006.

In addition, The NYPD developed a reward program funded by the Police Foundation. Rewards of up to $500 will be given out to anyone providing information leading to the arrest and conviction of graffiti vandals.

Consequently, graffiti arrests have been rising steadily, beginning with 1,237 arrests in 2003 to 2,962 arrests in 2008. In the past six months alone there have already been 1,583 arrests. The automatic fine for graffiti is $500, and incarceration can surpass five years in prison.

The mayor’s Quality of Life program also handles illegal dumping, rodent infestations and the removal of homeless individuals from illegally occupied areas.

According to the City Council, New York City agencies spent about $13.5 million for paint, labor and equipment to clean up graffiti in the last year alone.

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