June 19, 2008

Crews Can Wipe Out Graffiti, but Taggers Are Rarely Caught

When vandals tagged the seawall at 48th Street last month, city workers quickly pulled out a pressure washer to blast off the spray paint.

It didn't work.

So the crew ordered a batch of gray paint on May 21 and waited. Meanwhile, graffiti surfaced on planters near the beach access at 48th Street. More appeared on property north and south of 48th Street along the Oceanfront.

By June 4, the city's order had arrived, and workers repainted the sea wall. Police have yet to make an arrest, however. They also have yet to receive a report of the crime, according to department records.

Vandalism - already the third-most-reported crime last year in Virginia Beach - may be significantly under-counted because of a lack of communication among city departments and because of the high frequency of the crime . Only larcenies and simple assaults were reported more often than property destruction last year in Virginia Beach.

The crime was the least likely to be solved by Beach police, with an average of about 15 percent of the city's roughly 5,500 cases cleared by arrest, according to the department's 2007 report to federal officials.

Clearance rates for vandalism cases in Chesapeake and Norfolk were similarly low, according to department spokespeople. The FBI, which maintains national crime reports, does not track vandalism clearance rates.

In Virginia Beach, city employees who discover graffiti are supposed to contact police before cleaning it up. But sometimes crews simply get to work and move on.

Mark Gemender, public works operations engineer, said workers have noticed an increase this year in graffiti, despite an official police tally that indicates a decline.

City crews "may act more quickly in the tourist areas, but certainly in other areas, we take photos and start cleaning," he said, referring to a city practice of relaying images to police, who determine whether vandalism is gang-related.

"To clean up the city, that's the goal," said Jimmy Barnes, a Virginia Beach police spokesman.

Of cases that are reported to police, most languish without resolution, like the vandalism at Village Church on Indian River Road in January 2007. Jackie Simmons, an administrative assistant, said she and others at the church haven't heard from police since the day after vandals smashed exterior lights and spray-painted a church building, sign and door.

"I suppose they could consider it wasn't really major damage, even though, to us, we consider our church sacred, so it was definitely important to us," she said.

It's not that the case isn't important, but "anything to do with violence to another person or animals is going to take precedence over a property crime." Barnes said.

A lack of witnesses and credible information about the crime also leaves investigators with little to follow, and the frequency with which it occurs can be overwhelming, he said.

"There is so much of this little tagging stuff around the city," Barnes said, "it's really kind of hard to keep up with it."

Shawn Day, (757) 222-5131,

[email protected]

high frequency

Vandalism was the third-most-reported crime last year in Virginia Beach, but it may be significantly undercounted.

lack of communication

City employees are supposed to report graffiti to police before cleaning it up, but sometimes they simply clean it up and move on.

least likely to be solved

A lack of witnesses and credible information about the crime leaves investigators with little to follow. rise in graffiti

The public works operations engineer says workers have noticed an increase this year in graffiti, although an official police tally indicates a decline.