Tough crackdown on graffiti planned

Stronger penalties, no-tolerance zones to be part of effort

March 22, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley is planning to launch an aggressive anti-graffiti campaign, saying the age-old scourge is dragging Baltimore down.

"It makes the city look trashy," he said yesterday. "In some neighborhoods, it's an out-and-out advertisement for open-air drug dealing. ... The key is rapid abatement."

The steps he intends to take include:

Adding three graffiti-removal crews to the six working citywide on public and private properties

Seeking stronger penalties for convicted graffiti vandals and possibly requiring property owners to undo damage by a deadline

Putting undercover police officers on stakeouts in unmarked cars outside properties that are hit repeatedly

Establishing "no-tolerance" zones in high-visibility corridors that will be patrolled daily, with all identified graffiti removed

Using an April 20 citywide cleanup, dubbed the "Super Spring Sweep Thing III: Let's Paint the Town," to encourage property owners to paint over graffiti with materials supplied by the city.

With a formal announcement weeks away, details remain murky, including the beefed-up penalties he will ask the City Council to approve. Current penalties include a fine of up to $1,000, 90 days in jail and community service, though prosecutors say police have sent them only a handful of cases every year.

Also, the no-tolerance zones have not been set. O'Malley said he expects to include such routes as Eastern Avenue and Jones Falls Expressway.

Some businesses welcomed word of a crackdown, which echoes then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's 1980s crusade against paint-wielding defilers of bridges, buildings and public spaces.

"My observation is it's getting worse and worse," said Ehrich Goebel, managing director at A.T. Jones & Sons Inc., a 134-year-old costume supplier. His Howard Street building has been hit repeatedly. "If it starts slowing up a bit, that's good. I know it's a hard problem to tackle. As long someone is conscious of it, that's the main thing."

Baltimore's campaign is being modeled after Philadelphia's. Thomas Conway, Philadelphia's deputy managing director of operations, briefed Baltimore officials in January. A recent "citizen survey" found that 81 percent of Philadelphians feel graffiti is less common, he said.

O'Malley is vowing to energize what he acknowledged has been a lackluster anti-graffiti effort.

"In the past, we never did anything about illegal dumping, either," he said. But over the past five months, he said, the city's environmental crimes unit has referred 34 illegal dumping cases to the state's attorney's office.

"They're about to get more for graffiti," he said.

Graffiti is easy to see, sometimes in precarious spots reachable only by climbing onto a roof or scaling fire escapes. Though some vandals scrawl banalities such as "Tony 'n Muffin," others do intricate designs featuring the painter's "tag," or trademark initials.

At A.T. Jones, in the 700 block of N. Howard St., the rear of the building has been struck time and again in the past three years.

Last month, someone got on the roof, dropped a few feet to the cornice and defaced bricks on the front facade nearly 40 feet above the sidewalk. That's when Goebel complained to the city. "It'd be one thing if they painted The Last Supper," he said, "but they didn't."

Goebel is reluctant to fix it, not only because of the cost. "I could remove it from now to doomsday," he said. "They're going to keep hitting me over and over again."

That same fear keeps Michael Bradley of Boxer Property Management Corp. from spending $20,000 or more to clean nine stories of graffiti on its downtown office building at 16 S. Calvert St.

That view annoys O'Malley. "What if I took that attitude?" he said. "`Somebody will just do it again, so why try?' Come on, Baltimore, wake up."

He likened graffiti to illegal dumping. "If you don't get it up, it attracts more."

To ensure graffiti does not linger, O'Malley said he may ask the council for power to compel property owners to eradicate it within a certain period of time.

Philadelphia has a similar ordinance, though its main purpose is to persuade owners to allow city crews onto their property, Conway said. "We don't enforce it because they've been a victim of a crime in our eyes."

One recent local victim, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, quickly undid the damage. Last week someone painted a 6-foot-by-30-foot swath on the front of the brick building. The next day, the symphony hall paid a contractor $1,200 to get rid of it using a solvent and power washer. City officials offered to do the work, but it was done by the time they volunteered.

In the city center, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore removes graffiti for free. The business advocacy group's workers paint over it or use chemicals and a power washer. On Sunday, crews cleaned walls around the subway station at Lexington and Eutaw streets.

But if the damage is above the first floor - as with 16 S. Calvert St. - it's up to the property owner. Tom Yeager, the partnership's vice president, said owners should be required by law to remove such graffiti at their expense.

"If you're a victim of a break-in and your front window is broken, do you expect the city to repair it?" he said. "No, you fix it."

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