Last week, graffiti made local headlines as never before--community leaders decried the defacement of a beloved rec-center mural, a "volunteer" bloodhound was pressed into service to track down spray-paint-toting vandals, and a local radio station opened a graffiti hotline to report acts of vandalism.
Just one week earlier, however, Denver police had made plans to scuttle the sole full-time departmental position devoted to working on graffiti cases. And it was only some last-minute, behind-the-scenes politicking that helped the cops avert what could have been a major public-relations gaffe.
Graffiti became a political hot potato last spring, in the midst of the city's hard-fought mayor's race. "During the campaign," says Manager of Public Safety Fidel "Butch" Montoya, "I contacted a lot of people, and their main issue was, `You've got to do something about this graffiti.' They were all upset about it. So it became a real priority."
Montoya, at the direction of Mayor Wellington Webb, then began working with other officials to strengthen the city's existing graffiti ordinance and put some teeth into enforcement. To augment those efforts, Montoya and Denver police chief Dave Michaud assigned a detective to investigate graffiti vandals and file cases on them.
Detective Ray Ruybal, a longtime gang officer, was tapped for the job. He soon became known within the department as "the graffiti czar." Ruybal began making regular appearances at community meetings, in part to tell parents how to recognize whether or not their sons and daughters might be involved in graffiti "crews."
Then, in late July, faced with a growing number of violent crimes, the department's investigative division began casting about for detectives to beef up the assault unit. Captains in other units were asked to give up some of their staff to help fill spots in the Crimes Against Persons bureau. Ruybal was among those slated for reassignment. He was scheduled to move to a new post August 20, and the plan was to leave the graffiti job unstaffed.
Well before Ruybal's move, however, a political hue and cry arose. City councilwoman Ramona Martinez--who reportedly (and ironically) learned of the decision to scrap the job during a neighborhood anti-graffiti meeting--called Montoya to express her concern.
But by then Montoya already knew. Someone else had already complained to him. And Montoya had already expressed his concerns to Chief Michaud.
Montoya, who says he has no wish to "micro-manage" the police department and oversee every single personnel move, was nonetheless clear in framing his desires. "Graffiti is an important topic," he says. "The mayor has prioritized it. I called the chief and said I thought he ought to look at it again, evaluate the position. I asked if it was a wise decision to make at this time--did we want to send a message to the community that we were downgrading the graffiti effort?"
The answer, it turned out, was no. And two days before Ruybal was supposed to hang it up, he got a reprieve. The detective will stay on as Denver's graffiti czar for at least another six months, after which his bosses will again evaluate the need for such a post. Insiders say Ruybal's job will undergo some changes, focusing more on enforcement and investigation than on public relations.
Whether or not the job stays depends on a number of factors--the most important of which, perhaps, is whether graffiti continues to hold the mayor's attention. On Montoya's desk last week was a memo from Webb, attached to a copy of Chicago's graffiti ordinance. "The mayor asked me to look at it," Montoya says. "He says it's tougher than ours.