The city of Moorpark sees the writing on the walls, but police and city officials no longer want to read the message.  
Since Jan. 1, tagging crews in Moorpark have sprayed the city with more than $100,000 in damages and, until the city can allocate more funding for police patrol, the cost of graffiti cleanup will continue to contribute heavily to the city’s expenses.

Taking a page from anti-graffiti initiatives throughout the nation, Moorpark police have decided to go after tagging crews with a new approach. Once caught and proven guilty through court proceedings by the city, taggers will be held civilly liable to pay for damages accrued. In the case of a minor, the bill for the damages will be given to the legal guardians.

Critics of this plan say that most taggers come from low-income families. Making a family financially responsible for its child’s actions will only bring the family deeper into poverty, which does nothing to dissuade a youngster from joining a tagging crew or, ultimately, a gang as an escape from family hardship.

But with no graffiti abatement programs set up within the city to deter or provide alternative outlets for taggers, police officials see no other way to account for city damages.

The Moorpark Special Enforcement/Gang Unit recently arrested and booked Arturo Mendoza, 20, on 16 counts of felony graffiti after a three-year investigation. Mendoza and his crew are responsible for defacing the walls of Moorpark City Library, Moorpark Athletic Club, Flory Academy Elementary School, Moorpark Unified School District property, Southern California Edison property and many private businesses throughout the city. Mendoza will be held accountable for $23,000 in damages.

Additionally, the unit recently found a tagging crew juvenile guilty and responsible for $12,000 in damages. His guardians are now responsible for paying the fee.

“Everyday, there is something new,” said Detective Christopher Starks. “There are several different tagging crews out there competing with one another. It’s usually a daily basis that our police officers are going out there and having to deal with this.”

The Moorpark police have, at the most, four patrol deputies on the clock during the day, and having to respond to newfound graffiti takes away from regular investigations and patrol duties.

“The guys working patrol are spread pretty thin,” said Starks.

What is most frustrating, said Starks, is the difficulty of catching a tagger in the act of committing vandalism, which leaves either video surveillance or admission as the other ways to ensure successful prosecutions.

In order to heavily crack down on the tagging crews, Starks said, police are asking the city for more overtime hours to assemble nightly surveillance teams that he believes would drastically lower the amount of vandalism in the city.
“We don’t have a lot of time to go looking for it,” said Starks about the vandalism that happens late at night or early in the morning. “That’s the problem.”

Council members, along with city police, recently visited the city of Santa Clarita to learn more about what it takes to thwart vandalism. Santa Clarita has been reporting high success in eradicating graffiti. The city uses buses to advertise a reward program for those reporting graffiti. The program awards as much as $500 a person for reporting information that leads to the arrest and conviction of a tagger. Furthermore, Santa Clarita implemented a paint-matching truck that assists business owners and property owners in removing graffiti.

There are three major tagging crews in Moorpark, and often these crews lead into mainstream gangs, which has also become a widespread issue in the city.

“Some of them go on to associate with the gang crowd because they start tagging together or tagging for the gang,” said Detective Sgt. John Riley. “It’s pretty common. A lot of our taggers have become documented gang members.”
Riley couldn’t confirm that overall gang crime is up, but said there is an increase in younger kids who are joining and becoming affiliated with gangs.  

But tagging crews qualify as criminal street gangs, said Ventura County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Bill Shierman. He said at least half of Ventura County’s violent crimes are tagger-related.

“They function on territory just like a criminal street gang,” Shierman said.

Some taggers, said Shierman, are into it solely for the artistic display of graffiti. In Oxnard, which estimates $1 million in graffiti damages a year, advocacy groups such as Arts for Action provide outlets to encourage expression through public murals and community art programs.

But until the city of Moorpark establishes a more creative solution, police encourage citizens to immediately report any information they may have regarding tagging in the city.    

 Arts for Action is holding a community meeting Thursday, Aug. 5, to discuss the 2010 Paint not Prison Mural. The mural will be created by those working off community service, along with local artists. It is located at the South Oxnard Center Reception Room at 4300 Saviers Road.

shane@vcreporter.com