Ask any Central Valley resident about the region's top nuisances and graffiti would undoubtedly be near the top of the list.
Case in point: In Merced, one only needs to take a short drive along Highway 99 or G Street. It's not uncommon to see spots where the tagger's illegible handiwork is in plain view, scrawled across fences, railroad cars or storefront walls for all to see.
Fortunately, there are those who've refused to submit to the plague of graffiti -- and Merced police detective Allen Adrian is on the front line of that battle.
A 12-year veteran with the department, Adrian, 35, is the department's graffiti detective, a role he's held since April 2008. Although Adrian oversees hundreds of graffiti reports filed with the department, his job description goes far beyond just taking a few notes.
Like a personal signature, graffiti tell a story about the perpetrator -- and Adrian treats every incident like a crime scene. He reviews photos taken by officers on the street and painstakingly logs important clues, such as the monikers left behind by the perpetrators and various telltale signs, such as the style and nature of the graffiti.
Adrian's hard work is bearing fruit. Last year, his work resulted in more than 200 arrests -- more than four times the number of graffiti arrests the department made in 2006. "I get satisfaction from my job when I actually can identify who's tagging what, and do the investigation to the point when I can make the arrest and bring them in here," Adrian said.
The work begins
Although Adrian's full-time efforts as the graffiti detective began in 2008, as a patrol officer in 2004 he was asked by the department to begin documenting the city's graffiti. He started with a blank Excel spreadsheet and a note pad.
Back then, Adrian said officers literally had to catch the offender in the act to make an arrest. "So we didn't catch that many," said Adrian. "Then, when (former) Chief (Russ) Thomas asked me to do this full-time in April 2008, that's when I started to think about different ways to go after these taggers."
Some of those ways have included serving search warrants at the homes of suspects in graffiti cases. Often those searches yield notebooks used by the suspects to practice their graffiti, in addition to spray cans and other evidence.
Adrian said those practice drawings and other evidence can link a suspect to numerous incidents of graffiti throughout the city. "Their spray can is basically an extension of their pen," he said. "It's easy to find some practice drawings and match it to a crime scene on the street."
Even though graffiti is nothing new to Merced, Adrian said the problem ballooned during the 1990s, as the number of tagging crews and gangs in the region increased. "Gang graffiti is usually kept to a certain location, where they are marking their territory," Adrian explained. "Tagging crews want to go throughout the entire city, and get their moniker up in as many places as they can, to become known."
Each month between 1,000 and 2,000 incidents of graffiti at an average of 150 locations are reported in Merced, according to Merced Community Action Network, a nonprofit group that paints over and cleans up graffiti citywide.
Graffiti costs businesses, homeowners and local governments nationwide more than $20 billion in damages annually, Adrian said. The city of Merced pays Merced Community Action Network around $200,000 annually to perform graffiti abatement on city property.
That number doesn't include cleanup costs for homeowners and businesses on their private properties.
There are roughly between 15 and 20 documented tagging crews in the city, Adrian said. Last year, the Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force estimated there were around 25 gangs in Merced.
Merced police reported about 200 graffiti-related arrests in 2009, 180 in 2008, 75 in 2007 and 45 in 2006.
As for whether the graffiti problem in Merced is getting any better, Adrian said the problem "fluctuates," depending on several factors, including the time of year and the number of vandals on the street at any given time.
The penalties for graffiti offenders are getting stiffer, Adrian said. In recent years, Adrian said suspects accused of graffiti have been charged with gang crimes, as opposed to just vandalism charges. That can result in more time behind bars.
Most taggers and vandals are teens, Adrian said, although he's arrested offenders who've been in their early 30s. Such people have usually been tagging since high school -- although growing older hasn't stopped them. "They've got their family and kids -- and they're still tagging," Adrian said. "As far as the kids, it's something they get into and it seems to envelop them. And that's all they focus on. And they constantly practice their graffiti."
Merced isn't alone in its graffiti woes, Adrian said, as most Central Valley cities from Bakersfield to Sacramento have grappled with the issue. He pointed out that even Europe has experienced an epidemic of graffiti. "It's a global issue," Adrian said.
Adrian said he also tries to speak to young people, to try an convince them tagging leads only to jail and fines. He admits a small minority of taggers actually display a degree of talent -- although they're unfortunately focusing their creative energies in all the wrong areas. "I can tell there are some kids who are listening, and there are others who, no matter what you tell them, they're not going to stop tagging," Adrian said. "Some have even told me straight to my face, 'I am not going to stop.' And they've been arrested eight or nine times. Those are the kids we need to put more punishment on."
Still, Adrian said, the responsibility also lies with parents. Adrian said he's seen the bedroom walls of some taggers covered in graffiti -- yet the parents deny their child has a problem. "Their room looks like an alleyway. And they have five cans of spray paint and 15 paint markers. And you don't know that your kid is tagging graffiti?" Adrian asked. "When the kid has been arrested three or four times, then I think the courts should do more against the parents."
Despite the enormity of the problem, those who work with Adrian say he's making an impact -- and more vandals and taggers in jail means less graffiti in the community.
Jim Sanders, founder and president of Merced Community Action Network, said Adrian's been responsible for more graffiti arrests than anyone else he's known during the past decade. "He's just done a phenomenal job. I'd hate to be one of these kids that he's after," Sanders said.
Merced Police Chief Norm Andrade said Adrian has also been known to go beyond the call of duty, painting over graffiti at various locations on his own time. "He's making a huge impact," Andrade said. "He is a very pleasant surprise and very valuable to the department."
Although Adrian admits no one will probably ever be able to put a total stop to graffiti, he'll always do his part to suppress the problem. "We're trying to make it zero-tolerance where if you get caught, you're going to the hall," Adrian said. "We're not going to let you think it's OK to go out there and tag graffiti."
Anyone who has been a target of graffiti should take a photo and make a police report, Adrian said. If someone spots a suspect spray painting graffiti, he advises calling police at (209) 385-6905.
Dump-stock paint can also be bought cheaply at paint stores to paint over graffiti, Adrian said.
In the meantime, Merced's graffiti detective will stay on the case.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.