By JESSICA CRAWFORD
• Leader & Times
Liberal Police Chief Al Sill confirmed that graffiti is, in fact, on the rise. He said the community should understand there are gangs in Liberal, and they are currently damaging property throughout all corners of the city. In order to combat the problem, he said, the community will have to get involved.
There are several ways individuals, as well as neighborhoods, can attempt to get a handle on the current spike in graffiti. He suggests Neighborhood Watch efforts. However, the concept has not taken hold as well as the LPD would like to have seen.
“Neighborhood Watch is something we have tried over and over again, and there is just not a lot of interest in community involvement,” Sill said. “The problem is it is a community problem, and we are not going to be able to solve it alone without community help and support.”
The Graffiti Removal Program, part of the Liberal Pride City Wide program, can be an effective way to quickly remove graffiti from property already victimized by the problem. To take advantage of the program, contact the Code Enforcement Division at 624-4357.
“We, as a city, have this graffiti removal program,” he said. “One of the easiest ways to combat graffiti is the quick removal of it. The sooner we get it removed, the less enticing it is for other people to come back and add more graffiti to a targeted area. The city has put together this program that helps citizens to get the graffiti removed in a timely manner.”
Sill said there is a city ordinance in effect that states graffiti must be removed within 72 hours. Rather than having to enforce the ordinance, the city has tried to make it as simple as possible for victims of graffiti to remove it in a timely manner.
“We do have a city ordinance that mandates that it is removed within 72 hours,” he said. “The property owner is to have it removed within 72 hours, but it is not something that we want to have to enforce. That is why we have this program that we have provided. There is a couple of ways they can get the paint removed. They can either paint over it themselves or ask the city for assistance in doing that. The city can come in and generally what they will do is paint it over with some kind of primer gray or dull color. Or, the citizen can apply for a voucher. The voucher will then reimburse them for the paint or stain they use that will closely match the color of their building.”
There are a few solutions Sill suggested that may direct vandals away from specific properties.
“There are some other things that I would like for the community to kind of recognize,” he said. “They can help harden their property a little bit by planting some thorny vegetation around some fencing areas or building structures that seem to be a target. I know that to be pretty effective, I have done that myself. You plant large thorny vegetation scattered out along your fence line and it does deter people from spray painting on the fence. Is it going to prevent them completely? That depends on how determined that person is to spray paint. But most people aren’t going to go up there and get stuck with a bunch of thorns to do that.
“Another way is adequate lighting to make sure that they aren’t doing it in darkened areas,” he continued. “We have also found that fencing seems to be a big target because it is a long area for them to spray paint. We have found that if you stagger those boards in a shadow box effect, then it’s less appealing for them to spray paint on it because nobody can read the message. So, those are some tips people can do to safeguard their property. Now, I realize not everyone is going to want to change their fence around, and they shouldn’t have to do that – I am just giving some suggestions.”
The problem is real, Sill said, and he believes gangs in Liberal are to blame. He estimates approximately one dozen gangs are operating throughout the City of Liberal, however, he said, he cannot be sure of an exact number.
“Yes, we have gangs,” he said. “I don’t want to mislead the public and have them have a false sense of security by saying we don’t have gangs. Yes, we do have gangs. The big question is, how structured are the gangs in comparison to the larger cities? You know that in your large cities – L.A., Chicago, New York – the structure of those gangs runs deep and it runs through generations.
“What we have here in Liberal is kind of off-shoots of those gangs and the generations don’t run near as deep,” he explained. “But I am sure as time runs on, we will have more and more generational problems than we do now. We have several gangs in town, there is quite a number of them and they are scattered throughout town.
“I couldn’t give an exact number as to gangs or gang members in town,” he continued. “I do know that they tend to recruit more and more and more. That’s part of the problem that we are seeing with the rise in graffiti is from our gang members in town.”
This, he said, is likely to have led to the recent spike in the graffiti problem throughout the city.
“I will say that we have had a spike in our graffiti,” he said. “Last year, we had a total of 80 incidents, the year before that we had 141. That was a considerable drop. But the alarming thing we are dealing with right now is we seem to have had a spike in them this year. Just in the month of January, we are looking at 14 which is double to the year prior to that in the same month. So we have had a considerable spike.”
The recent spike is not limited to one area of the city, as it may have been in the past, Sill said. That, he said, is the reason the entire community must help the LPD fight back.
“What we have done in the past, if we have a targeted area, we try to saturate that area as much as we can to try to deter that,” he said. “But when you have it all over town, where do you saturate your patrol efforts? It’s difficult to know. Obviously we do need community help in trying to identify and help target some of the graffiti areas that we have.”
Sill encourages anyone with information regarding any acts of graffiti to anonymously come forward by calling 624-4000.
“We also have our reward program,” he said. “We have had that in effect for some time. We are offering up to $500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction for someone giving us information on graffiti.
“The problem we have dealt with is we have had very few people willing to come forward with any information,” he explained. “So, it is not a program that we have been able to utilize a lot because we can’t force someone to step forward, they have to do that on their own. More often than not, we find that these people are not going to squeal on their friends.
“We won’t let their identity be released, it is a pretty safeguarded program,” he added. “But, even still, that doesn’t necessarily encourage someone to step forward.”
Sill said the graffiti issue is not only a Liberal problem.
“Every community has this problem,” he said. “We have checked with Garden City, our neighboring town, and they have every bit the problem that we have with this as well.”
Along with community help, Sill said, maybe the problem can be controlled to some degree. He encourages local retailers to keep their spray paint under lock and key and require identification proving the individual purchasing the spray paint is over the age of 18 – which, he said, is the law.
“I can’t really provide the single best answer,” he said. “It is a combination of several different little things that we can pitch in and help each other with to try to solve this.
“We are currently working on some cases that I think we will get solved for 2010,” he continued. “But, that doesn’t help us out with what is happening today.
“It’s difficult, at best, to protect all of your property, I understand that,” he concluded. “But there are things you can do that will help deter some of it. I hope the public learns that.”