Vancouver looks to get tougher on graffiti

Proposal includes new criminal codes for prosecuting vandals, property maintenance codes with more teeth

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

Graffiti in Vancouver city limits

If you see someone defacing public or private property, call 911.

For details on how to report graffiti on public or private property in the city of Vancouver, go to www.cityofvancouver.us/police/page/graffiti.

Fighting spray-painting vandals will require a few additional tools, the Vancouver City Council heard on Monday from staff members.

Neighborhoods Program Manager Judi Bailey and Alana Iturbide, a law clerk for the city attorney's office, presented multiple approaches to fight a growing graffiti problem. They included new criminal codes to assist with prosecuting vandals, new civil penalties for parents of minor offenders, and the addition of "maintained free of graffiti" to the city's minimum property maintenance code.

The city will also request that the two dozen or so businesses that sell spray paint within city limits place the cans in a locked display case or near the cash register to deter shoplifters.

At the end of the workshop, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said the proposals will put "a little more teeth" into the city code, and members of the council agreed. They also wanted to emphasize education, such as having businesses post city codes regarding graffiti near the spray paint cans.

Bailey said the proposal, created with input from local neighborhood associations and inspired by action taken by other cities including Portland, Seattle, Tacoma and Yakima, doesn't come with a budget request. She said it's a first step in trying to reduce the amount of graffiti showing up on public and private property, and the proposal would be implemented using existing resources.

Councilor Bill Turlay asked how much of the graffiti was gang-related. Vancouver Police Cpl. Doug Rickard said only 10 to 15 percent.

"I would have thought that number would have been higher," Turlay said.

Rickard said people often mistakenly attribute graffiti to gangs.

City Manager Eric Holmes said the council will vote on amending city codes in late May or June, but didn't yet have specific dates for the hearings.

Iturbide said graffiti already falls within a law prohibiting "malicious mischief," but other cities have singled out graffiti as a distinct crime, a gross misdemeanor. Additionally, the city would make it a misdemeanor to be in possession of graffiti implements (defined as nozzles and other tools, in addition to spray paint). Minors would also be prohibited from buying spray paint.

Vancouver Police Cpl. Duane Boynton said the "possession of graffiti implements" crime would help nab suspects caught after leaving a scene. If the suspect has paint on his hands and a backpack with spray paint cans, for example, he could be arrested for possession of graffiti implements even if he wasn't caught spray painting.

In Washington, a gross misdemeanor can bring a sentence of up to one year in jail. A misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail.

Bailey said the city would seek jail alternatives, such as making offenders clean up graffiti as part of a community service sentence.

Iturbide said she has spoken with business owners and they are receptive of the requests regarding where spray paint cans are kept and posting the laws.

The council also discussed a potential fine for parents of minor offenders, with a maximum liability of $5,000.

Councilor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who was elected last year, said the city's lack of a requirement regarding the cleanup of graffiti has long been a problem. She's worked with the Vancouver Neighborhoods Alliance, and this issue came up repeatedly because absentee landlords wouldn't bother to clean it up, she said. Also, bank-owned properties would not be cleaned because the city lacked a requirement. Empty homes are a frequent target, she said.

"We have no teeth. We have nothing in the Vancouver Municipal Code," she said.

Bailey said she's looking for an organization that would assist property owners who may not be able to afford to clean up graffiti.

As for city property that gets marked, the public works department has one employee who works full time covering up graffiti.

Councilor Larry Smith said a utility box near his home has been hit with graffiti three times, and a Clark Public Utilities employee cleans it up.

The Washington State Patrol is responsible for cleaning up graffiti on state highways and overpasses, while C-Tran dispatches employees to clean up graffiti on bus stops and buses.

Councilors asked about the distinction between art and graffiti. Graffiti is defined as unauthorized and unwanted.

In a memo to Holmes and the city council, Bailey wrote that public resources are being used to abate graffiti.

"Still, the problem is growing, and if left unabated, graffiti sends a message that no one cares about the neighborhood or business district. If left in place, graffiti tends to attract more graffiti.

"Graffiti can affect property values in our community and can make people feel unsafe in our neighborhoods."