Ray Ruybal Made His Mark

The longtime head of Denver's graffiti unit fought to clean up the city -- until he felt he was beating his head against the wall.

"The police department just didn't care," he says. "They would say, 'Well, we need more detectives over here.' And they'd say, 'Ray, you've been here long enough, we'll leave you here because you know what you're doing.' And that was fine, but, jeez, when you're getting all of these reports, you can never keep up." While often it was just a matter of understaffing, he also blasts certain DPD officials for just giving lip service to fighting graffiti. "They won't say it if you ask them," he notes. "They're so full of it. It was, 'It's just graffiti, we'll get it cleaned up.' And it got to the point where it just got worse instead of better."

So when a moderator at the graffiti summit asked what the unit needed, Ruybal decided to finally lay it all out.

"I said, 'I'd like to have a sergeant who really listens and knows what graffiti is. I'd like at least five or six detectives so that we could split the day up and always be out there. I need better equipment, good cameras, good undercover cars, radios, overtime. Support.'"

Ray Ruybal at home, with sketchbooks he's confiscated over the years.
tony gallagher
Ray Ruybal at home, with sketchbooks he's confiscated over the years.
City councilman Paul Lopez worked with the Crime Prevention and Control Commission to recruit some of Denver's biggest graffiti vandals to paint this mural in his district.
tony gallagher
City councilman Paul Lopez worked with the Crime Prevention and Control Commission to recruit some of Denver's biggest graffiti vandals to paint this mural in his district.

The summit attendees nodded approvingly and moved on to other subjects.

"I honestly thought for a lot of years that I was just there to make it look like somebody was investigating, just to appease the community," Ruybal says. "After the summit, I decided that I put twelve years into it, it was too frustrating, they didn't care, they didn't give me what I needed, we were just there for show more than anything else, and it was time to go."

He put in for a transfer to DIA. While he waited, he sat on the Graffiti Task Force, a forty-member panel established to carry on the work of the summit. The task force was split into three subcommittees — enforcement, abatement and prevention — that explored a variety of strategies, ranging from allowing property owners to file lawsuits against taggers or their parents to establishing "skate and bike watch groups" that would monitor graffiti activity.

While the task force was studying how to stop graffiti, no one noticed that the city had no actual anti-graffiti enforcement. Ruybal's last partner in the unit retired late in 2006; Ruybal himself was getting ready to move on.

Over months of meetings, the wackiest ideas were jettisoned, leaving twelve recommendations that were issued in May 2007 and subsequently adopted by the Denver City Council in November. One doubled the punishment for graffiti, so that a first-time offender now faces a minimum of forty hours of public service and a $500 bill, a second-time offender eighty hours and $750, and so on. (An existing law already allows the worst of repeat adult offenders to be slapped with a felony and up to five years in prison.) A second measure shortened the time that property owners have to remove graffiti from their buildings after being notified; today they have 48 hours to de-tag commercial and industrial-zoned property. In addition to abatement strategies, the task force called for the creation of diversion programs, such as a youth "art park" and a mural program for public spaces.

Another recommendation called for the individual DPD districts to start handling their own graffiti investigations rather than dumping all reports on the graffiti unit. One of Ruybal's final responsibilities was to go to all of the district detectives and tell them that they now had to do their own graffiti cases. The thinking was that this would allow the districts to focus on smaller, neighborhood graffiti while the bigger investigations would be handled by Ruybal's replacements in the unit.

"Some got mad at me," he remembers, "and said, 'Why can't you take 'em with you?' And I told them, 'Because they won't let me.' Those poor guys — they got to do all the cases in the district for auto theft, burglaries, robberies, assaults, disturbances, accidents unless there's injury or alcohol involved. Those guys — general detectives—they're stuck doing everything, and then they've got to do the graffiti and the shoplifting, too.

"These detectives, there's no way they can do that," he concludes. "It has got to be the most unforgiving job. Thankless."


By mid-June, there had been 79 graffiti arrests this year — many of them random, and only two involving adults. On February 26, an officer with the District 2 SCAT observed six juveniles walking north in the 3600 block of Kalamath Street. Two of them tagged a highway sound barrier with gold and silver spray paint, causing an estimated $1,000 in damage; all six were taken into custody. The adult arrests occurred on March 5, when an officer saw two men in their early twenties running down an alley near 754 South Broadway. The officer caught up with the men and saw they had silver spray paint on their hands. He traced their footprints back to a freshly tagged roof.

Commander Doug Stephens says that while such on-the-fly arrests don't usually involve the "big fish" they'd like to get, they can lead to bigger cases. "It's similar to how you'd conduct a drug investigation," he explains. "These people have actually talked to the officers and confessed to a number of different tags in the area."

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