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Leaving a mark
by Cortney Maddock
Jul 23, 2009 | 3281 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/Nathan Orme - Gang graffiti at the corner of Oliver and Montello streets in Reno promote the West Side 18th Street gang.
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A single can of spray paint could cost a gang member or tagger about $5. The graffiti created by that spray paint cost the city of Reno more than $379,000 to clean up, according to the 2008 Report on the Status of Gangs published in June by the Regional Gang Unit.

The 29-page report, which dedicates only two pages to the visible reminder that gangs exist in the community, states that graffiti cases increased in Washoe County between 2007 and 2008. The Graffiti Abatement Team in Reno removed more than 12,000 markings in that time. The city of Sparks removed more than 19,800 markings and Washoe County cleaned up more than 200.

At the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office on Parr Boulevard, Benny Imbert sits at his desk with a stack of files, each containing a report filed by a home or business owner who has had their property “tagged” with graffiti.

Nevada Revised Statue 268.4075 defines graffiti as being any unauthorized inscription, word, figure or design that is marked, etched, scratched, drawn or painted on public or private property defacing it.

In Imbert’s profession, the definition of graffiti goes deeper than that. Imbert has been a specialist with the Regional Graffiti Task Force for four years and explained that his job is to decipher what every graffiti marking means. Is it gang-related graffiti or is it a tagging crew? Could the paint sprawled across a concrete wall end in violence or was it a work of art by a tagger?

“I cannot even begin to count all the gang monikers,” Imbert said as he printed out a spreadsheet packed with names. “Gangs start fights by crossing out each other’s names.”

Yet, as Imbert scrolled through photos of some still-to-be-identified graffiti markings, he admited his job is not easy.

“After a while you can start to get it,” Imbert said of the way the letters look like scribble to the untrained eye. “After a while you just get it.”

According to the annual gang unit report, gang graffiti is used as a way to claim a territory, or turf. A gang might also use graffiti as a way to threaten or challenge a rival gang, antagonize law enforcement or promote the gang.

“This is how we know it is gang graffiti,” Imbert said pointing to what looked like the number 13. “Thirteen or 14, but once we know, even if the numbers aren’t there later, we know who did it.”

Imbert said in June he investigated 11 reports of graffiti in Washoe County. He said there were seven reported cases in the Lemmon Valley and Red Rock areas, three cases in Spanish Springs and one case in Incline Village.

“Last year in June, we had 21 cases,” Imbert said. “The Sun Valley area had none, but the Mayberry (Drive) area in southwest Reno took a big hit.”

Imbert said while some people might perceive graffiti as a neighborhood issue, it is still a countywide problem, which has led to the creation of a partnership between Washoe County and the Reno Police Department. Both agencies share their graffiti databases in the hope of catching more taggers and gang members who use graffiti as a form of communication.

“If we find a suspect, if I can identify the suspect and they deny it, I will ask them to take a computer voice stress analyzer,” Imbert said, explaining that it is basically a lie detector test. “If the stress test says the suspect is lying, I will submit my findings to the (district attorney).”

Imbert said the cases only go to the district attorney if the suspect is an adult. If the suspect is a minor, the case is reported to the Jan Evans Juvenile Detention Center in Reno.

“I would say a majority, about 95 percent, are juveniles,” Imbert said. “Suspects are charged twice, hit with destruction of property and graffiti.”

Imbert sees graffiti created by taggers or people who like to create more artistic markings as very different than gang graffiti.

“When it gets more artistic, sometimes it is just tagger art,” Imbert said. “As far as taggers are concerned, it’s a fun thing to do during their youth, but on the gang side, it leads to gang violence.”

In an effort to track graffiti in the community, Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks joined the Graffiti Tracking System in February, paying $9,000 each to join. The system was supposed to enable all three agencies to share databases and information, but Mike Biselli, the city of Sparks public works department maintenance manager, said that the tracker did not work as well as the city had hoped.

“What was going on was some of the pictures were not being labeled or properly identified,” Biselli said. “We have decided not to renew the graffiti tracker contract. The city of Reno is going to upgrade its in-house graffiti tracking system and we’re going to partner with the city of Reno and buy a license to use their system.”

Biselli said that his job at the public works department includes taking pictures of the graffiti and cleaning it up as quickly as possible.

“We actually had two full-time employees dedicated to graffiti, but due to budget reductions, one position was eliminated,” Biselli said. “We were dedicated to graffiti seven days a week.”

Biselli said graffiti is very common in Sparks and it is a difficult task to get it cleaned up quickly, but that quick abatement helps cut down the problem.

Imbert said the city of Reno and Washoe County provide a free service to clean up graffiti on private property. Property owners just need to file a report or fill out a form online to have someone come out and remove the graffiti. He also said victims could ask for restitution to pay for the cost of the damage, but the cost of abatement, which starts at $253.50, already sets graffiti charges at a gross misdemeanor, which carries a heavier punishment.

Biselli and Imbert encourage people to call and report graffiti-related crimes. Imbert said that if someone sees a person in the act of tagging or marking to tell the person on dispatch.

Biselli said Sparks residents can call 353-2271. Reno residents should call 334-2099 and residents in Washoe County can call 785-4629.
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