Aldermen crack down on graffiti "cancer" by doubling fines

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Calling it a “cancer on our city,” Chicago aldermen agreed Thursday to more than double fines against graffiti vandals, well aware that they’re fighting a losing battle.

“You’ve still got to catch `em,” said Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th).

Ald. Nick Sposato (36th) called graffiti arrests a “real rarity,” adding: “Somebody has to call. Police need to get there right away and…I highly doubt that anybody is gonna stand there and say, `You caught me,’ and they’re not gonna run.”

William Dunn, commander of Chicago Police Department’s Near North District, said police officers across the city wrote 547 administrative citations during all of last year for vandalism and criminal damage to property. Sources said fines are seldom levied and rarely collected.

“It’s a difficult crime to catch somebody in the act of doing it because it happens very quickly. It only takes a matter of seconds for somebody to spray-paint [or] marker up something and then, they’re gone. You’ve got to kind of be at the right place at the right time,” Dunn said.

In spite of those difficult odds, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s to raise the fines, which are now $750, to anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 against the vandals themselves and up to $1,000 against their parents or guardians.

Southwest Side Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd) went along with the mayor’s plan, even though he preferred the tougher crackdown he introduced two years ago in response to a spike in gang graffiti and a slowdown in city removal of it.

Zalewski’s plan would take graffiti cases out of the hands of city hearing officers and return them to the courts, where judges may be more inclined to throw the book at offenders, and tack on “not less than three days” in jail or 2,500 hours of community service.

“Helen Keller can see that graffiti is a cancer on this city. And like any other cancer, if you don’t deal with it thoroughly, it spreads,” Zalewski said.

“Once it sits out there for a day or two days and people see it as they’re driving…[or] walking through their communities, the first impression they have is, `Something is horrible in my neighborhood. The gangs are taking over.’…We’re sending these crews out to the same spot, week after week. It’s so aggravating.”

Tom Baliga, president of the Archer Heights Civic Association, said his organization is so concerned about graffiti, it has a volunteer patrol that scours the streets every week and sends reports to the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation.

“Graffiti is driving the middle class out of our city…. We have lost factories in Archer Heights — not just because of graffiti, but it is a contributing factor. Repeated graffiti sometimes is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and is the final decision of an exasperated homeowner or business to leave the city,” he said.

Baliga called the mayor’s ordinance a “step in the right direction,” but said it’s “still weak and does not go far enough.”

If an offender or parent can’t pay, Baliga proposed that they be required to perform “substantial community or clean-up” service dressed in bright-colored coveralls.

“We’re suggesting hot-pink. I don’t think anybody wants to be out there in a hot-pink uniform doing cleaning,” he said.

Two years ago, Emanuel defended his decision to cut his predecessor’s popular graffiti blasters program — and dramatically alter the city’s plan of attack — despite a slowdown that had so frustrated one alderman, he was using his expense allowance to remove it.

Even after appeasing aldermen by restoring $1 million in graffiti removal cuts, Emanuel’s first budget reduced annual spending on graffiti removal from $5.7 million and 60 employees in 2011 to $4.1 million and 43 employees. This year, the city expects to spend $4.9 million. The extra money was used to add two graffiti blaster crews, two chemical graffiti removal trucks, one painting crew and a weekend graffiti removal shift.

Streets and San uses a grid system to ‘blitz’ four wards per day addressing outstanding calls in targeted geographic areas. Each ward is blitzed about once every 10 days.

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