By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
After Ruybal moved to DIA, Detective George Gray, formerly of the SWAT division, and Detective Gerard Alarcon, from District 4 SCAT, were tapped to finally fill the vacancies. They started with the unit in December, even as the Denver City Council was issuing its anti-graffiti edicts. Alarcon is well-versed in the violent battles occurring between westside tagbanger crews like EMS and WK, a rivalry that has resulted in several stabbings and drive-by shootings. When they started their graffiti assignments, they were expecting to find a dense electronic database of graffiti suspects and their suspected work.
"But when we came in, there's no database," says Gray. "There are a few lists of all the tagging crews and a few lists that have people identified back from 2000 or 2004."
The DPD was also supposed to collect evidence from the eight wireless "graffiti cams" unveiled by police and city officials last November as a "powerful weapon in our anti-graffiti arsenal." Denver was the first city in the nation to deploy the surveillance equipment in popular graffiti spots. But the $5,000 state-of-the-art cameras — which are triggered by "graffiti-related motion" and send an image and text message to police — have yet to lead to a single arrest, says Gray. The problem is that the cameras have to be hidden in precise positions, and the signals don't always reach police. Fortunately, the equipment was donated by North Carolina-based Law Enforcement Associates Inc. in the hopes that Denver would buy more cameras in the future. Since none of the free cameras are currently in use, that's not likely. (Back in 1996, Ruybal touted a similar $2,500 camera sensor program that also proved disappointing.)
Stephens notes that many of the laws and policies recommended by the task force were implemented at the start of the year. "It's in its infancy," he says of the program. "In the graffiti unit, Detective Alarcon and Detective Gray, they come in fresh and they give it a fresh perspective. Ray Ruybal is certainly a graffiti expert, he's done a great job for the department and the city for a long time now. His expertise will be missed. But these two new detectives are very excited about the new opportunity, and they've been out there doing a great job."
Ruybal wishes them all luck; they're going to need it. "I hope they enjoy it, but it's going to be tough for them," he says. "One detective isn't enough, not even two detectives is enough. Some days I used to get so frustrated. I would think, I'm just bashing my head against the wall. I really wanted to do things, but something was always stopping me."
Gray agrees that the unit could use more detectives. "We're working unlimited overtime; the city should start seeing that two guys are working way more overtime," he says. "We don't have the resources, and we need to get those resources if they're serious about combating graffiti."
Though local graffiti writers say they haven't noticed any sign of an enforcement clamp-down by police, the buff squad is out in force. "It's pretty much dead in the streets," says one longtime writer, who noticed a dramatic increase in abatement about two months ago.
Reliable tagging spots are painted over the next day. Stickers that have ridden high on light poles for years have been scraped off. On Internet forum boards and at street art shows, graffiti writers compare notes and attribute the intensified cleanup to city officials scrambling to spruce up the town ahead of the Democratic National Convention. Some taggers have fought against the tide, others have simply focused on other parts of the city. The leader of one major crew says he's advised his members to lie low, maybe take a vacation, until the convention has come and gone, at which point they can resume their regular bombing runs.
Neddra Niblet, one of two "graffiti fellows" in the Mayor's Office, insists that the cleanup has nothing to do with the DNC. Rather, it reflects a new strategy the Department of Public Works implemented earlier this year that has abatement crews focusing on graffiti "hot spots," such as South Broadway and Federal Boulevard. The strategy came with an additional $224,000 for this year's abatement budget, which currently stands at a record $1,193,203.
And this figure doesn't include the hours put in by hundreds of volunteers at several "community paint-outs" organized by Councilman Lopez's office. In one day, they used 59 buckets of paint, cleaning up dozens of alleys and commercial strips throughout the west side.
While Lopez says he keeps in touch with the graffiti unit, he leans more toward prevention as a long-term strategy to stop graffiti artists. "I understand the mentality," he says. "It's a form of resistance. But it's almost like a rebel without a cause. There's not very many things for young people to do nowadays. I think it's almost a cry for help to say, 'Hey, this is what we're interested in.' There's a lot of young people out there who are talented, but they need someone to channel that energy."
He plans to push for more rec-center hours and art classes for teens, but he's also excited about a mural program being run through the Crime Prevention and Control Commission. Still in its nascent stages, the concept involves hiring local graffiti writers to paint large murals on walls either owned or obtained by the city. One was painted in May at the Globeville pool by members of Your Name in Graffiti, which preaches against vandalism. In Lopez's district, a large mural on a wall in the Westwood neighborhood with the phrase "Stop the Violence" was much more jarring because it was painted by hard-core members of TKO (see story, page 22).