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San Diego leaders want removal of gang graffiti prioritized

San Diego Union-Tribune - 4/27/2022

Two San Diego City Council members and a local pastor say the city must prioritize removing gang-related graffiti scrawls because they often lead to immediate violence.

The council members — Vivian Moreno and Monica Montgomery Steppe — also complained that response times to graffiti scrawls have been slower this year in the low-income neighborhoods they represent compared to other areas.

Moreno said she will lobby for more anti-graffiti money in the new city budget the council is slated to approve in June. Montgomery Steppe wants eradication efforts streamlined, especially regarding graffiti on commercial property.

The complaints come as city response times to graffiti scrawls have doubled since 2013, from an average of five days to an average of 10 days. Since 2013, the number of city workers devoted to graffiti efforts has shrunk from 14 to nine.

Montgomery Steppe, speaking during a Wednesday meeting of the City Council's public safety committee, said the city's graffiti team is making a mistake by not prioritizing gang graffiti enough.

"Certain types of graffiti — gang graffiti — where there is continual visits to the same site and where we see one name being crossed out and another one placed and then crossed out, does result in violence," she said.

Clyde Gaines, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in southeastern San Diego, said gang graffiti makes neighborhoods significantly less safe.

"Any time gang graffiti goes up, it represents an immediate challenge — an immediate threat — to any other gang that might be in the community," he said. "It also has an impact on the perception of the community, as it relates to drawing business to the community."

Montgomery Steppe and Gaines complained that it took city crews more than a month to remove gang graffiti that community leaders say played a role in causing a recent shooting.

Patrick Hadley, who leads the city's anti-graffiti efforts, said city crews will prioritize any gang-related graffiti if they are made aware of it.

"Anything egregious, anything gang-related that we know of, anything that could potentially lead to violence that we know of, we would prioritize right away," said Hadley, offering to work with Montgomery Steppe's staff to set up a notification system.

Moreno said slower response times this year in low-income areas are particularly frustrating in light of the connection between gang graffiti and violence in those neighborhoods.

"We are the communities most impacted by gang violence," Moreno said. "We are the communities that need to have that graffiti removed in order for us to stop a lot of the violence."

During the fiscal year that ends June 30, city crews have taken longer to respond to reported graffiti scrawls in District 8, which includes the South Bay and border communities, and District 4, which includes much of southeastern San Diego.

The average response time in District 8 was 21 days through March 31, the highest by far of any council district and nearly double the citywide average of 11 days.

"I think the city needs to stop treating low-income communities as second-class citizens," Moreno said. "To me, this is repulsive and it really needs to stop."

Juan Aguirre, a Transportation Department program manager who coordinates anti-graffiti efforts, said the numbers for District 8 are skewed by a cluster of scrawls that presented unusual challenges.

"Unfortunately, sometimes things line up where we have a number of difficult tickets that stay open in the same location while we either facilitate or coordinate that action," Aguirre said.

Statistics for 2018 through 2020 indicate the recent surge in District 8 might be an outlier. They show the city responded to graffiti calls equally quickly when low-income and high-income neighborhoods are compared, but that neighborhoods with the most graffiti reports tended to get faster service.

During those three calendar years, the average number of days it took city crews to handle graffiti in the city's three poorest council districts was eight days in District 4, eight days in District 8 and nine days in District 9.

The average was also either eight days or nine days in every other council district, except District 1 at 11 days and District 5 at 12 days. And District 1 and 5 had the fewest graffiti reports, making it less efficient to send crews there often.

During the ongoing fiscal year, the number of cases per council district through March 31 was: 4,127 in District 3, 2,402 in District 2, 1,874 in District 9, 1,281 in District 8, 974 in District 4, 913 in District 7, 401 in District 1, 346 in District 6 and 172 in District 5.

City officials say the most popular spots for graffiti include drainage channels, freeway entrances and bridges. Particular locations include the San Diego River, downtown, El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, Park Boulevard, Thorn Street, Paradise Valley Road, Ocean View Boulevard and Pacific Highway.

Aguirre said the recent challenges in District 8 were connected to homeless encampments, crews not having the right vehicles to access certain spots and graffiti wars among gangs.

Moreno said the fact that graffiti scrawls are gang-related should accelerate city efforts to remove them, not be cited as a reason why city crews have been slow to remove them.

"It dives into so many facets of our community that it does become a public nuisance that can potentially lead to more dire situations," she said. "I'm going to be pushing for more resources and personnel to abate graffiti during the budget process. You need more men and women out there and better equipment."

Much of Wednesday's hearing and the statistics that Moreno cited were focused on graffiti scrawls in the public right of way — streets, sidewalks, pedestrian bridges, drainage channels and other city-owned property. Those account for about 60 percent of scrawls in the city.

The other 40 percent are scrawls on private residential property, which are handled by the nonprofit Urban Corps, and scrawls on businesses or apartment complexes, which are handled by the city's code compliance staff.

Efforts by the Urban Corps are often slowed by the need to get permission from the residential property owner. Efforts by code compliance are often slowed by the normal process for code violations, which includes taking no action until 30 days after filing a notice of violation.

The average response time to scrawls on private property during calendar 2022 has been about 50 days, sharply up from an average of about 20 days in calendar 2021. Aguirre said the spike was partly because of an Urban Corps staffing shortage that has improved.

Montgomery Steppe said using the typical code compliance process for graffiti seems too cumbersome and slow.

"I feel like we need to streamline some of the processes," she said.

To report graffiti, use the city's Get it Done! tipster app or call the graffiti hotline at (619) 527-7500. Graffiti in progress can be reported to San Diego Police Department at (619) 531-2000 or (858) 484-3154.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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