Law Enforcement Spotlight: 50mm Talks With a Cop
Story by Too Tall Jahmal
50mm staff writer
Photos by Gabe the Saint
Recently, we spoke via email with a member of the Graffiti Task Force...
TooTall: Who are you and what do you do?
Detective ACEE: Detective Acee with the California Highway Patrol (CHP). Lead investigator for the CHP’s Los Angeles City/County Graffiti Task Force. The task force is made up of 14 CHP investigators from around Los Angeles. We work closely with LAPD, L.A. Sheriff, County Probation, State Parole, and the various smaller, city and school, police departments.
TooTall: How do you guys (different departments) all work together?
Detective ACEE: The task force has state-wide jurisdiction. We work very closely with the GHOST officers and other investigators around the state. We also work with out of state investigators when they request our assistance. Due to the large volume of graffiti vandalism in Los Angeles, we primarily focus on the larger crews.
TooTall: Who are you more likely to go after... crews with a lot of members or crews that just bomb a lot.
Detective ACEE: Crews and/or individual writers that consistently cause large amounts of damage to city or state property are fair game. The task force has the ability to focus on a particular crew, utilizing immense resources, to collect evidence and prepare a solid case to the district attorney.
TooTall: Should there be a publicly known list of most wanted writers? Do you think writers would stop writing if they knew that they ranked high on a cop list?
Detective ACEE: No. In my opinion, that type of database would foster additional rivalry and enhance the individual writer(s) desire to gain additional fame. It would almost be like a scoreboard and would not be a deterent.
TooTall: You mentioned that you recently rocked some freeway mural arrests. How did that go down?
Detective ACEE: Can’t share specific details of the investigation because they have led us into larger cases involving narcotics and weapons violations.
Detective ACEE: However, the freeway murals are a top priority for our unit. The murals belong to the greater community and the artists who created them. The o.g. taggers respected their fellow artists and the murals were once considered off-limits. Things have changed and it is unfortunate. It gives graffiti artists a bad name.
TooTall: When did taggers start bombing the murals and why do you think they have apparently changed their minds about hitting the murals? When you say it gives graffiti artists a bad name you seem almost to imply there is a certain level of tolerance for graffiti amongst the general population.
Detective ACEE: I’ve met many talented writers. I’ve even had to arrest a few. I am often impressed with their artistic vision and talent. I only wish they wouldn’t burn important freeway signs, community murals and property that does not belong to them. I think the degree of tolerance for graffiti varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. I don’t have an agenda per se; I’m paid to investigate vandalism. I don’t have any personal dislike for taggers and I understand the desire to be recognized, especially when you’re young and coming up. However, individual property owners and government spends and enormous amount of money restoring and repairing vandalism. Because 100% of taggers use aliases, it makes it difficult to discover the real person. I enjoy the challenge.
TooTall: Is graffiti spreading or declining?
Detective ACEE: The intricate graff has lessened. But I wouldn’t say graffiti has slowed down. I see a lot more of the simple throw-ups and bubble-bombs. I thought there might be less throw-ups when wild-style broke out. It took additional skill and I thought the simple painters would be fazed out of the scene. I was wrong.
TooTall: Do you guys go after older generation writers who were prolific in the past but are no longer active?
Detective ACEE: No. We implement video surveillance, photos, witnesses and informants to focus on active vandals.
TooTall: Could you please give us a summary of the current law in Los Angeles concerning graffiti vandalism? What penalties can a writer who gets caught expect to be faced with? Are there any changes in law that will take effect for 2003?
Detective ACEE: If a writer causes $400 dollars or more in vandalism to public or private property, it is a felony crime. There are a lot of costs associated with clean-up and small pieces can easily reach the $400 threshold. Felony convictions can result in state prison confinement, heavy fines, and a potential felony strike (California 3 strikes law). A convicted graffiti vandal (felony or misdemeanor) can also lose their driver’s license for 1-year. There are numerous enhancements for multiple graffiti convictions and the victim restitution can add up to several thousand dollars. Ask any heavy hitter who’s been convicted of felony vandalism, it’s no easy ride.If a writer bombs a freeway wall, sign, overpass, bridge, etc., they can expect felony charges. It costs Caltrans several million dollars per year to cover graffiti in Los Angeles alone.
TooTall: In the eyes of the task force, is there a difference in priority between guerilla marketers and spray can vandals?
Detective ACEE: My unit primarily focuses on the spray can vandals. However, once we start our investigation into a suspect – all vandalism is fair game. We note all the damage, large and small, and figure out the cost to repair the damage.
TooTall: There are rumors circulating that the Task force infiltrates certain events not necessarily posing as writers but as onlookers or enthusiasts... Is this true? How far does the Task Force take investigations to find out who the prolific taggers are?
Detective ACEE: Some things must remain a secret.
TooTall: Are there any privacy laws that prevent you guys from making busts, or that restrict you from prosecuting taggers that you feel should be repealed?
Detective ACEE: We must always stay within the confines of the Constitution, federal law, state law and police policies.
TooTall: I remember in particular a newspaper article from as far back as '91 that reported on a bust that was set up as a "TV interview" for a British TV segment. Was that you guys? It must have be satisfying to track down someone like GKAE. Were you and the task force the ones responsible for bringing him in?
Detective ACEE: TV interview was a good idea, however I wasn’t working graffiti during those days. I think I was still in high school. I did not personally work GK, but know a bit about it. GK was a busy writer and created multi-thousands in damage – a lot of which was done to private property. He wasn’t a gangster or a thug, so I imagine that a ride in the state
joint was rough. Honestly, I’d like to know if he feels the fame was worth the consequence?
TooTall: There's a common refrain that resonates with taggers and skaters which say basically, the cops have more important stuff to do than bust a bunch of kids who tag. Why is it important that graffiti be eradicated?
Detective ACEE: We don’t get to pick and choose what we do. Each one of us is tasked to a specific assignment within law enforcement. We don’t write the laws, we enforce them. We are giving a small amount of discretion and are expected to carry out our individual assignments. Prior to the task force, we worked regular assignments like traffic control, DUI apprehension, speed enforcement, accident prevention, etc. It wasn’t until the community demanded MORE enforcement and investigation of vandalism that we formed the task force. Basically, we do what the greater community tells us to do.