Community works to solve costly graffiti crimes


SOME TEEN-AGERS call it "tagging." Adults are more apt to call it malicious vandalism. The problem is graffiti, and it is a costly crime against the community, demoralizing residents and picking the pockets of building owners who end up paying for its removal.

Capt. Timothy Bowman, commander of the county's Eastern Police District, says the problem is not confined to any one area of Anne Arundel. Broadneck has had a recent spate of graffiti, as has Severna Park.

Severn School is reeling from the latest attack. On Tuesday night, $4 million worth of new construction on the school campus proved irresistible for vandals. While many of us watched fireworks, the walls and doors of the school's gym, the new student center and Woods Hall, a classroom building, were being attacked.

Another major incident of graffiti occurred two weeks earlier when the painted brick walls of the Community Center at Woods were defaced. An organization that spends so much time and money providing a safe environment for young people at its weekend nightspot, Holy Grounds, has fallen victim to graffiti perpetrators, most often the age of the kids Woods is trying to support.

The problem is deemed so serious that the Greater Severna Park Chamber of Commerce is offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for graffiti in the community.

"It may be as simple as the proximity of kids to blank walls," Bowman said yesterday. "But here in Greater Severna Park, the Chamber of Commerce and residents are very attentive to the appearance of their structures. The minute it [graffiti] shows up, the police are called. The residents are not afraid to voice their concern."

The quicker graffiti disappears, the better. However, depending on the extent of the job, costs can run into the thousands of dollars, says Paul Grabarek, owner of P.F. Grabarek and Associates, an engineering firm on Benfield Road that has been handling engineering and architectural restoration for 27 years along the East Coast.

The cost of removal depends on what a building is made of, dense concrete, brick or porous block, Grabarek explains. If the walls are painted, a section must be tested to determine which removal process to use.

In the case of a painted surface, the chemical needed to remove graffiti also destroys the paint. Then the building must be repainted. In the worst cases, where the graffiti has penetrated the surface, a combination of chemicals and power washing is necessary.

"We try to get people to do graffiti prevention," Grabarek says. To accomplish this, his company applies a penetrating sealant to surfaces such as concrete or brick that are not traditionally painted. This sealer can be applied in any temperature, dries in less than an hour and is invisible on the walls.

When treated walls are hit with graffiti, Grabarek says, the spray paint washes off with water. "Kids want their tag to last a long time," he says. "When they come back the next day and their tag is gone, they may try one more time, but after that, they'll never come back."

"The term tagging was attached originally to an identifier for gangs, but now it covers anyone with a personal tag," said Bowman, who has been on the police force for 30 years.

One of Bowman's most effective weapons against graffiti is what he calls his Midnight Platoon, officers and investigators who work at night. In the fall of 1998, the platoon caught two men, ages 18 and 20, tagging a commercial building in Severna Park. Each was tried on more than two felony and misdemeanor counts and received jail time, probation and community service and were ordered to pay $5,539 in restitution.

"When there is more than $300 worth of damage, the crime becomes a felony," says Detective Ed Stratton, who led the investigation.

"They were typical of the groups that perform this sort of act," Bowman says, "young people who are out at night, motivated to make their mark on the world one way or another."

Leads can come from unexpected sources. "If the vandals are repeaters, their tag can lead to identifying them," Bowman says, because it often includes a name, motto or a mascot in a design devised after long practice.

On one occasion, police conclusively identified a suspect in Pasadena by comparing drawings on his homework papers with graffiti.

How did the police get his homework papers? His mother turned them in.

"Parents want their kids to be responsible for their actions," says Bowman.

Anyone with information about graffiti is asked to call the Eastern District at 410-222-6145. To reach the Chamber of Commerce, call 410-647-3900.

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