ANTI-GRAFFITI TEAM CLEANING UP SIMI VALLEY.
After listening to a Ventura County judge hand down his sentence, convicted graffiti tagger Nicholas Andrew Devos had good reason to be somber.
Not only was he sentenced to 180 days in jail for 56 counts of graffiti vandalism, the 19-year-old Simi Valley resident also was ordered to pay more than $9,000 in restitution.
The outcome was cause for celebration for Michael Nisito, the coordinator of Simi Valley's Graffiti Abatement Program, and Simi Valley police Officers Robert Brill and Darin Muehler, whose investigation led to Devos' confession.
``Devos was solemn. I don't know how he's going to pay the restitution. But the city has said we don't want any graffiti in the community - zero tolerance,'' said Nisito, who testified in the case.
``When a crime is solved, it's payday,'' he said.
Although the Graffiti Abatement Program was created in 1988, the number of graffiti tags - the term used to describe the defacement of public and private property - continued to rise until 1993, when it peaked at 4,038.
Since then that number has declined to 1,562 in 1997, with 378 recorded in the first quarter of 1998.
``The out-front, in-your-face graffiti is becoming a thing of the past in Simi Valley,'' Nisito said.
Those kinds of results have caught the eye of officials in Denver and other cities, who want to know the secret of the $180,000-a-year program.
According to Nisito, Simi Valley started winning the war against graffiti when a second employee, Soon K. Boo, was hired in 1994, allowing the program to expand to seven days a week.
The change meant that all graffiti could be removed within 24 hours. When Nisito worked alone, he could not monitor weekend vandalism.
``I'd come in Monday morning and there would be 60 calls on the hotline. It would take days to fix it all,'' Nisito said. ``Now, we don't have that bottleneck.''
Muehler, of the Simi Valley Police Department, said quick removal of graffiti is critical because taggers, typically 16- to 24-year-old males, are most gratified when others see their work in public places. By removing the monikers and slogans, the city effectively vanquishes the tagger's fame.
``Nothing upsets them more than getting their graffiti taken down,'' Muehler said. ``Notoriety is everything: If I can't be known, why am I doing it? Why risk arrest?''
And Deputy District Attorney Cheryl Morgan, who prosecuted Devos, said a strong anti-graffiti program is one reason Simi Valley is typically ranked among the nation's safest cities.
``It gives residents a sense of security,'' she said. ``It gives criminals a sense that someone is watching and they can't get away with it.''
On Thursday, Nisito visited a flood channel beneath the Ronald Reagan Freeway off Sequoia Avenue, where taggers had vandalized about 2,500 square feet of concrete. Graffiti cleanup costs the city about $1 per square foot.
Although the crude art could not be seen by pedestrians or motorists, Nisito took photographs, then returned Friday to watch a contractor paint over the markings.
``If you tolerate some of it, they start getting bolder,'' he said. ``It starts creeping onto the freeway.''
By ``sheer fluke,'' said Muehler, the taggers suspected of causing the vandalism were arrested that same night.
Muehler said a detective investigating an auto burglary found a backpack under the overpass, with paint inside and bearing a name tag. When he returned to the police station, the detective mentioned his discovery to Muehler, who recognized the name on the backpack.
Moments later, a car with the suspects was stopped for unrelated reasons, and two 21-year-olds and a juvenile were cited for graffiti vandalism. If found guilty, they could be ordered to pay restitution.
Making a case
Although the number of graffiti incidents in Simi Valley is down, arrests and restitution payments are rare. Unless a tagger is caught in the act or confesses, only circumstantial evidence - his moniker - ties him to the crime.
Throughout the 1990s, only 12 cases have made it to Ventura County Court. As a result, the city has received about $20,000 in restitution, according to Nisito.
Devos' case netted Simi Valley its largest reward - $6,173. The state Department of Transportation will receive $1,800, with $1,200 going to a private business.
Nisito documents each graffiti incident with the hope that someday an arrest will be made. He takes photos, then writes up a crime report. His documentation helped Muehler and Brill nail Devos.
``When we saw the photos, we knew instantly it was Nick,'' Muehler said. ``But the difference between knowing it and working a case is night and day.''
Morgan, the prosecutor, said the documentation made her case against Devos airtight.
``The way Mike and the police officers compiled data helped us get that restitution amount,'' she said. ``There was no quibbling. There was really nothing the defense could do. The case was a dream from a lawyer's perspective. It left me with a tremendous respect for law enforcement.''
Although Muehler said he admires the artistic talent of some taggers, he laments the damage they cause.
``What's the difference between graffiti and art? One word: permission. If you can get the city or Caltrans to give you permission to paint, then go ahead,'' Muehler said.
``Devos was remorseful. He's one of the few guys who saw the light. After I cited him, I never saw his tag again.''
PHOTO (1-2) Above, Simi Valley Graffiti Abatement Program coordinator Michael Nisito, left, stands watch while Kenneth Haas prepares to remove some offending tags, above. At left, Nisito calls in an incident at an underpass of the Ronald Reagan Freeway.
Bob Halvorsen/Daily News
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Article Type:||Statistical Data Included|
|Date:||Apr 12, 1998|
|Previous Article:||POLS GET 26% RAISES; GOVERNOR'S PAY TO BE TOP IN U.S.|
|Next Article:||AND AWAY THEY GO; EASTER EGG HUNT FUN FOR ALL AGES.|