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Providence police find graffiti battle tough

Taggers elude new police tactics

PROVIDENCE -- Some consider it art, but police say that graffiti is vandalism. They've also found it extremely tough to stop.

This summer, the State Police superintendent, Colonel Brendan Doherty, formed a graffiti task force to team with Providence police after graffiti appeared on the new $577 million Interstate 195 project.

The officers wait in undercover cars. They use state surveillance cameras. They monitor graffiti websites. They follow tips the public leaves on a recently established hot line.

But officers involved in the hunt tell The Providence Journal that catching a graffiti artist is like trying to catch a ghost.

The operation between Providence and State Police has led to four arrests, but there haven't been many successes.

"The problem is you have to catch them in the act," said State Police Detective Peter Chabot, who works with the Providence police gang task force.

"You have to get lucky," added State Police Detective Jim Dougherty.

Despite the difficulty, police must crack down on graffiti, State Police Lieutenant John Leyden III told the Journal.

"It's an eyesore to the public," he said. "It's a quality-of-life issue."

Leaving graffiti is a misdemeanor, and violators can face heavy fines.

A new state law sets penalties of up to $500 in fines and 100 hours of community service.

A Providence antigraffiti ordinance fines violators up to $1,000 and assigns up to 100 hours of community service.

It also holds parents or legal guardians accountable.

The city and State Police offer rewards of up to $500 for the arrest and conviction of graffiti vandals.

Cleaning up graffiti costs Providence taxpayers $125,000 a year for staff and materials.

It is unknown how much has been spent on graffiti abatement.

Gang graffiti is easy to read and common where the rivalries are strong, according to Providence Police Sergeant Michael Wheeler.

He said taggers practice, so when they find the canvas they like, such as a highway, building, or, bridge, they can move in and work fast.

Still, there's so much graffiti around that there must be witnesses, Wheeler said.

"Someone has to see these kids; someone has to," he said. "You're going to ride around and see all this graffiti, and you'll wonder why no one sees anyone tagging these buildings. Or, does no one care?"