Los Angeles turns cameras on gang graffiti

The new surveillance tool even speaks out loud to try to deter 'taggers' in the San Fernando Valley.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The voice seems to come from atop a light pole in a back alley in a gang-ridden section of L.A.'s east San Fernando Valley.

"Stop," a man's voice orders. "It is illegal to spray graffiti or to dump trash here. We've just taken your photograph, and we will use this photograph to prosecute you. Leave the area now."

The speaker and the photographer are one and the same: a "talking" surveillance camera that police and local officials hope will deter gang-related graffiti and, by extension, gang activity itself.

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The new cameras, a variation on the common surveillance camera used for years to snap pictures of traffic scofflaws and loiterers, were installed last week at three locations in this part of Los Angeles, where gang violence has been rising. Seven more are to be installed soon.

For many youths in this gang capital of America, brick walls, wood fences, and cement overpasses double as canvas – for everything from spray-painted symbols to explosions of handpainted ethnic art.

"The graffiti cameras are one more tool in the city's arsenal to prevent crime," says Anthony Pacheco, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). "Graffiti is a by-product of gang life. By deterring the crime of 'tagging' [done to identify gang turf], the cameras deter one communication mechanism of gangs, and therefore help deter more severe crimes, such as murder, associated with gangs."

For five straight years, crime rates have fallen in Los Angeles, with one exception: gang-related violence. The problem is particularly acute in the San Fernando Valley, which saw a 43 percent rise in such crime in 2006.

Other incarnations of the cameras have been used, with positive results, for several years in some high-crime areas of Los Angeles, such as Compton and the notorious Jordan Downs housing projects of South Central. Cameras have a motion-detection system that flashes the lens when someone is loitering in front of it. Earlier generations of the technology, made by Q-Star Technology of Chatsworth, Calif., have also been sold in several states, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

What's innovative about the newest cameras, besides the voice recording, is that they are wireless and solar-powered. That means officials can move the cameras easily and more often to new locations. They can also download the information captured by each camera without using the current method: a human standing in a bucket that is raised and lowered by a crane.

"This camera introduces the idea of deterrence at a whole new level," says Steve Hillsman, president of Q-Star Technology. "That means blanketing bigger areas, moving the cameras around, using dummy cameras as a way of really turning around a growing [graffiti] problem."

The California Air Resources Board has been using some versions of the camera to deter illegal trash dumping, including of couches, mattresses, and appliances in remote areas.

But L.A. city councilwoman Wendy Greuel wanted to turn the technology on the growing gang problem, noting that her constituents in the San Fernando Valley were complaining of a 300 percent rise of graffiti over the past six months.

"We have declared war on graffiti in my district," says Ms. Greuel. She has already worked to create neighborhood watch groups, ensure that graffiti is painted over, and plant vines and trees to obscure some surfaces. Her new tactic is to partner with senior LAPD officers to pinpoint areas where graffiti is proliferating.

Many residents say the new cameras seem to be having the desired effect.

"These cameras are better than what they've tried before," says truck driver Luis Amaya, who lives near a new installation at Fulton Avenue and Victory Boulevard in the valley. "It talks to you. I guess the word gets around."

It's also easy to find skeptics. "Taggers aren't going to be scared off by those things," says a 20-something who calls himself "Train with BNW." "It's too easy to put a mask on and then run at the last minute before they get you." He and five colleagues in a VW Jetta say they wish the city would spend the money to teach taggers how to paint and be more creative – and to reopen areas such as Venice Beach where graffiti artists once had spaces to paint legally.

Still others say the spending on new cameras – about $70,000 for 10 – is paltry compared with the $8 million the city spends on average each year for graffiti removal.

"I am grateful for this new attention in my neighborhood to eradicate a problem that has been soaring out of control," says Jose Rodriguez, who lives one block from a newly installed camera. "But if you think about how big the problem is compared to what they are doing about it, you realize it's only a drop in the bucket."

City officials say it is better to spend small amounts of money up front to prevent graffiti than to spend a lot of money to remedy it after the fact. "These will have deterrent value, no question," says Mr. Pacheco. "Some will be intent on trying to defeat this idea, but many will be caught and held accountable."

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