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Back to Archives | Back to August 2005 Contents 

The NYPD Strategic Approach to Stopping Graffiti Vandalism

By Raymond W. Kelly, Police Commissioner, New York Police Department, New York

uality-of-life crimes and the conditions that they create can challenge law enforcement. Graffiti vandalism is one such quality-of-life crime, and the New York Police Department (NYPD) undertook a strategic approach to stop graffiti. The approach and lessons New York learned apply to police departments regardless of size. The strategic steps are important; only the magnitude of the steps will differ between large and smaller departments.

Simply stated graffiti, or "tagging," as it is often referred to on the street, is the act of intentionally damaging private or public property by painting, etching, or permanently marking it in some manner. Most commonly, graffiti is created by individuals who use spray paints to tag the outside of buildings, fences, or glass windows with letters, pictures, symbols, names, or other markings.

Far more serious than the economic ramifications associated with cleaning up the graffiti is the insidious perceptions of disorder, contempt for the law, fear, and lawlessness that the tagging image leaves behind. For these reasons, the NYPD is proactive in its commitment to stop graffiti vandalism. Recently, the police department decided to take a fresh look at the problem. The result: a new seven-step strategy designed to emphasize the essential elements for thwarting graffiti: enforcement, education, and cleanup.

Step 1. Create a Citywide Antigraffiti Coordinator and Appoint Command-Level Antigraffiti Coordinators
Any initiative, to succeed, must have a central point person to oversee it. New York created the position of NYPD citywide antigraffiti coordinator to accomplish this task. As the title implies, the citywide antigraffiti coordinator manages the initiative's overall activities. The coordinator is also responsible for developing performance indicators and monitoring those indicators to assess and report on the initiative's progress and success. When and where necessary, the citywide antigraffiti coordinator implements changes and directs new tactics to enhance the initiative.

The NYPD's organizational structure consists of bureaus, boroughs, and local commands. For the antigraffiti initiative to succeed, each level of the structure had to be involved in the antigraffiti initiative. To ensure coordination, a citywide police command network of antigraffiti coordinators reports to the citywide anti-graffiti coordinator. To do this, we identified an antigraffiti coordinator at the appropriate rank in every command level concerned. In New York, that involved patrol, housing, and transit bureaus (chief rank); the patrol boroughs (deputy inspector rank); and local commands (lieutenant rank). The local commands headed by a lieutenant include the precincts, police service areas, and transit districts. In each of these command levels the antigraffiti coordinators maintain a liaison relationship with each other and with the citywide antigraffiti coordinator.

NYPD Public Education Initiatives

  • Offered a reward of up to $500 (funded by the privately financed New York City Police Foundation) for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of graffiti vandals

  • Distributed 20,000 reward posters; 205,000 palm cards; and 50,000 new "Combating Graffiti" brochures and 200 "Graffiti Hurts" videotapes highlighting the NYPD graffiti initiative throughout the city

  • Outlined the graffiti initiative on the NYPD Web site, (, and identified community groups actively participating in community cleanups

  • Promoted the graffiti initiative through the local media

  • Deployed community affairs police officers to instruct members of civilian organizations, civilian patrol groups, precinct council members, students, senior citizen groups, and auxiliary police about the graffiti initiative

  • Trained 160 youth officers in an antigraffiti curriculum for promotion in schools and youth forums

  • Encouraged the use of the mayor's 311 telephone information system to report past graffiti crimes or graffiti-related information

  • Sent letters on NYPD letterhead to community boards announcing the NYPD initiative and identifying their local (borough or precinct) antigraffiti coordinators

  • Enlisted the help of agents from the mayor's Community Assistance Unit and other programs during cleanups

  • Asked that information regarding the graffiti reward program be printed on all New York City workers' paycheck stubs, with the message reaching over 310,000 employees

  • Arranged for advertising space with local phone vendors to promote the reward program by posting details in public telephone booths

  • Enlisted the cooperation of the 1,300 members of the APPL (Area Police-Private Security Liaison Program), a group of business leaders who work in cooperation with the NYPD to prevent crime

  • Initiated the Taxis Against Graffiti (TAG) program, which asks taxi drivers to affix antigraffiti stickers to their vehicle bumpers and encourage taxi drivers to report graffiti crimes that they may witness during their tours

Finally, the citywide antigraffiti coordinator works directly with the mayor's office, city council, legislative affairs, and other city agencies to coordinate their efforts with NYPD operations to combat graffiti.

Step 2. Create a Citywide Vandals Task Force with Transient and Graffiti Section
In the past, the police department has had a Vandals Unit and an Anti-Graffiti/Vandalism Unit. Both worked independent of one another, with the Vandals Unit focusing specifically on subway-related graffiti, while the Anti-Graffiti/Vandalism Unit concentrated on street and surface graffiti. Under the new initiative, the two units were merged so the one entity would better employ logistical support and enforcement resources and yield better results. This new entity was named the Citywide Vandals Task Force (CVTF).

The CVTF, whose primary mission is combating graffiti, has the necessary expertise and collective experience of personnel to handle graffiti-related investigations and to provide guidance and assistance to local commands. The CVTF was placed under a newly created overhead command, the Transient and Graffiti Section (TAGS), headed by a captain who supervises the Vandals Task Force, as well as the Homeless Outreach Unit.

Step 3. Increase the CVTF Staffing Levels
Additional personnel were assigned to ensure that the new task force was adequately staffed for accomplishing its mission. In New York, the staffing levels were increased by one lieutenant, two sergeants, and 10 police officers for a grand total of three lieutenants, 13 sergeants, and 60 police officers.

Step 4. Use Technology
The CVTF personnel maintain a new centralized graffiti database. Task force members routinely input photographs of both graffiti offenders and graffiti tags that can be retrieved by local commands for intelligence and local enforcement initiatives. Digital photos of graffiti-vandalized property are routinely taken, as information on the taggers and symbols is gathered. A tag is often like a signature: the vandal does it the same way every time. By collecting this information, the tagger can be identified, which enhances the case prosecution. This information is shared with the CVTF and patrol borough graffiti coordinators and, where appropriate, with the Gang Intelligence Unit as well.

Recently, funding was acquired to purchase an additional 150 digital cameras for local command personnel to use in the field. These cameras will facilitate taking before-and-after photographs of graffiti trouble spots and continue to build the database.

The CVTF regularly researches, tests, and develops new equipment in its endeavor to capture graffiti vandals. Technology solutions include using infrared cameras for photographing graffiti vandals at night and global positioning satellite (GPS) devices to track their whereabouts when they are in a vehicle.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced the 311 telephone system, or helpline. The CVTF can now use this technology to geographically pinpoint graffiti trouble spots identified through 311 calls.

Finally, the task force was given access to the department's Sprint or 911 system. This enables the task force to monitor 911 calls of graffiti in progress.

Step 5. Educate the Public and Encourage Graffiti Cleanup     
The NYPD found it essential to educate the public about the antigraffiti initiative on several fronts at once. First, the public needs reminding about the seriousness of graffiti as a quality-of-life issue. Second, informing citizens about the antigraffiti initiative-explaining how it works and to whom, in the NYPD and particularly in their local commands (antigraffiti coordinators), they can reach out for assistance-enables citizens to take action. The public must work with the police department by reporting graffiti crimes in progress and offering information about those known to create graffiti. Finally, enlisting the public's help with neighborhood graffiti cleanups helps the public own the neighborhood.

Step 6. Set the Initiative in Motion: Enforcement, Education, and Cleanup
When the key elements of enforcement, education, and cleanup are in place, the initiative can be implemented. At the direction of the citywide antigraffiti coordinator the police command network of antigraffiti coordinators was tasked with identifying graffiti-infested or -prone locations and directing resources to them to address the problem.

Identify graffiti-infested or -prone locations and graffiti incidents. What makes graffiti a major quality-of-life issue is its high visibility. Antigraffiti coordinators from each command were instructed to identify the geographic locations where graffiti activity is prevalent. Officers and supervisors on patrol and the auxiliary police were instructed to actively look for graffiti tags daily. Information gathered from the public who have used the mayor's 311 hotline or contacted the police directly was also part of the identification initiative.

Each graffiti report or citizen's complaint is carefully reviewed, assigned a geographical code by computer, and mapped for viewing. This information is consolidated and reviewed by the citywide antigraffiti coordinator, and the Citywide Vandals Task Force. Each command maintains a list of trouble spots, and the top 10 worst graffiti locations in each patrol borough are monitored by the citywide antigraffiti coordinator. In addition, police personnel are mandated to photograph the tagged scene and report all graffiti arrests to the Citywide Vandals Task Force for entry into the centralized database.

Direct resources to address the problem. Once the worse graffiti locations are identified, the antigraffiti coordinators notify their respective commanding officers about the problematic locations. Together they develop a plan of action. A typical plan involves the patrol functions. Officers in sector cars-those assigned to anticrime, community affairs, crime prevention, school safety, and street narcotics enforcement units-are instructed to give special attention to graffiti-marred locations. This instruction is accomplished primarily during unit training sessions and bulletins. To reinforce the importance of the initiative, a series of articles was written to describe and highlight the antigraffiti initiative to motivate the force personnel to focus on this problem. These articles appeared in several issues of an NYPD magazine that is mailed to both active and retired members of the department.

Auxiliary police officers have also been pressed into service. Volunteers and auxiliary officers can be an important resource in the war on graffiti. While assigned to patrol duties, auxiliary officers were directed to pay particular attention to areas where graffiti is prevalent. They note and report any instances of new graffiti and also may be deployed at graffiti-prone locations as a visible deterrent to discourage taggers.

The NYPD School Safety Division is also playing an active role in deterring graffiti vandalism. Student vandals and gangs have often targeted school buildings and their associated facilities. To minimize the property damage caused by these groups, the entire School Safety Division's force of 4,000 agents and 156 police officers have received specialized training in combating graffiti. A no-tolerance policy when enforcing laws pertaining to graffiti vandalism has been initiated. In those instances where flagrant and repeated vandalism damage recurs in a school, the precinct school safety sergeant is charged with developing and coordinating a plan of action with precinct resources, school safety personnel, and the Citywide Vandals Task Force.

Step 7. Track the Progress and Report the Results.
Thus far we have described the process the NYPD has developed to inform, educate, and enlist the cooperation of the general public in its efforts to address graffiti and vandalism. This process, coupled with the combined enforcement actions of officers on patrol and the members of the Citywide Vandals Task Force to identify and arrest graffiti offenders, creates effective pressure on taggers. The department's deputy commissioner of public information uses its media and press contacts to publicize many of the arrests. This gives positive feedback to the community.

Police officers making graffiti vandalism arrests are also identified for consideration of a commendation letter. The department's citywide antigraffiti coordinator reviews the circumstances of each graffiti arrest and when appropriate sends a letter of commendation for outstanding performance to the officer of record. In addition, the department has also initiated a system of carefully tracking and reporting all graffiti arrests, cleanups, and meetings by using certain performance indicators.

Performance indicator is a tool that can be used to measure the effectiveness of any initiative. Not surprisingly, when dealing with any type of crime, arrest numbers become an important consideration because they provide immediate feedback about enforcement effort. Since the antigraffiti initiative's inception, detailed statistics have been maintained that compare complaint and arrest data for graffiti. These statistics are the primary performance indicators for NYPD. Graffiti complaints are tracked from commercial, private, public, and housing locations. Felony and misdemeanor arrests related to criminal mischief caused by graffiti, as well as arrests for making graffiti and possession of graffiti instruments, are tracked. Enforcement efforts are determined in part by documenting the numbers of juvenile reports, commercial summonses, and UF 250s (stop, question, and frisk reports) that are issued, as well as search warrants executed.

This data is reported weekly through the antigraffiti coordinators, consolidated, and then studied for patterns. Borough and bureau coordinators receive this data. The citywide antigraffiti coordinator reviews the information weekly to assess the progress being made. Several commands are then selected and asked to make an appearance at police headquarters to attend weekly TrafficStat and CompStat meetings.

Typically, the citywide antigraffiti coordinator and the commanding officer of the Citywide Vandals Task Force are present. The citywide antigraffiti coordinator hosts that portion of these meetings dedicated to reviewing the progress being made in combating graffiti. The coordinator will put the spotlight on the special operations lieutenant who has been designated the antigraffiti coordinator for the local command and ask him or her questions specifically designed to assess if the command is exercising a maximum effort.

The Work of the Citywide Vandals Task Force
The CVTF is notified of each graffiti-related arrest. This notification enables the task force to maintain an extensive database of information that contains not only photos of the tags but also of the offenders who created them. Often recidivists are identified from this information.

All persons arrested for committing graffiti vandalism are carefully debriefed. This is especially true of juveniles who are arrested, since NYPD data indicates that this age group is widely responsible for the majority of graffiti crimes. It is not unusual for the Citywide Vandals Task Force to actually conduct the debriefings since many arrested taggers are habitual offenders.

The Citywide Vandals Task Force helps officers identify tags and offenders. It also generates a target list of the 100 worst vandals, provides details of their identification, background, and area of operation, and copies of their tags, or signatures. This listing is so vast and comprehensive that it has now been consolidated into book form. Photographs of these vandals are then forwarded to the commands concerned and posted in the muster room area. If these vandals reside within New York City, they will become the subject of surveillance.

A unit in the Citywide Vandals Task Force is known as the Graffiti Habitual Offender Suppression Team (Ghost). Ghost members are all plainclothes officers whose sole function is to track the worst of the worst graffiti offenders and the hardcore recidivists and place them under arrest when warranted. The recidivists are identified to the local district attorneys for the purpose of ensuring a conviction and stiffer penalty.

The Citywide Vandals Task Force will also send in plainclothes personnel into identified high-problem areas. They will inspect commercial establishments and retail stores to ensure that the owners are in compliance with the various administrative code statutes regarding the sale of material and supplies used in graffiti. Specifically the officers will affix laminated warning placards within stores near the paint and marker displays. These placards discuss prohibitions and laws as they pertain to the sale of graffiti instruments. The lamination prevents the placards from being torn away or marked over. Owners who are in violation of the law are issued summonses.

A final function of the Citywide Vandals Task Force is to oversee and run the reward program. Citizens are encouraged to use the 311 telephone system to report graffiti locations or offenders. Upon dialing this number, an operator will answer. When he or she is informed that the matter being reported is related to graffiti, the call is routed to the precinct concerned. If the caller wishes to furnish information regarding the identity of a graffiti offender, the call is dispatched direct to the Citywide Vandals Task Force. Should the information given lead to the arrest and conviction of an offender, the task force will ensure that the caller receives a reward of up to $500.

Graffiti Tourists
NYPD observed the interesting phenomenon of graffiti tourists who travel across the globe to deface property. As absurd as it sounds, people actually travel to New York for the sole purpose of spray-painting their tag across the city. Task force members have traveled widely and established strong connections with their counterparts in other cities, ensuring that the heat is always on and that even visiting vandals are placed on notice that they will be identified and arrested.

The Data
Since the inception of the antigraffiti initiative, multiple and varied data have been collected and studied to provide comprehensive feedback about the initiative. Among the data evaluated and compared are arrests recorded in weekly, monthly, and year-to-date time increments. Individual bureaus, boroughs, and precincts are monitored as well. The department's leadership monitors the activity of the Citywide Vandals Task Force. Factors such as the day of the week, hour of the day, and platoon are examined and plotted in pie chart format.

The task force is also closely examining the age groups that are responsible for most graffiti vandalism crimes. At the moment, the overwhelming numbers of offenders are younger than 16, a finding that emphasizes the importance of coordinating with the School Safety Division. The data thus far indicate that the initiative is on course to succeed. Since its start on October 15, 2004, through March 13, 2005, there have been a total of 913 citywide arrests. This represents an increase of 384, or 72.5 percent change for the same period from a year earlier. Of these 913 arrests, 131, or 14.2 percent, have been effected by the Citywide Vandals Task Force alone.

Removing the Graffiti
Cleanup represents another powerful performance indicator of the initiative. Graffiti creates insidious perceptions of disorder, contempt for the law, fear, and lawlessness, but these perceptions are just as easily reversed once the graffiti begins to disappear. This is why the cleanup aspect is so important. The NYPD tracks these cleanups and uses a variety of means to initiate them, including waivers. Antigraffiti coordinators are encouraged to work with the community and the mayor's Community Assistance Unit to clean areas quickly. The reappearance of graffiti after a cleanup has occurred may indicate the need for surveillance cameras or directed patrol to stop repeat offenses.

Commanding officers are aware that staff members from the chief of department office will regularly go into the field to inspect the progress of these cleanup programs. The commanding officers are given reasonable time frames within which they must achieve the cleanup function and remove chronic graffiti locations from the borough's top 10 list, but they also know that focusing on graffiti is a priority of the department's leadership.

Transferability of Concept
In New York, the antigraffiti initiative looks promising. The initiative relies on the tenets of enforcement, cleanup, and education mixed with a liberal dose of individual resourcefulness. New York is experiencing a groundswell of public interest in combating graffiti. Since its inception in December 2004, the NYPD's antigraffiti Web page has garnered over 3,000 hits. There is also a tremendous increase (approximately 4,000) in requests for waivers where the owners give the city the legal authority to clean private property affected by the graffiti. The NYPD believes that this initiative can be adopted, easily modified, and used by any law enforcement agency with similar success. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 8, August 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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