Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Breaking the cycle

This post is for a friend of mine who works in Police HQ, who I will codename "we have more important things to worry about".

I can appreciate the Police perspective - when you have murderous bikie gangs and drug shoot outs to deal with, graffiti looks pretty insignificant by comparison.  However, not all Police are spending 100% of their time chasing killer bikies and arresting drug dealers - and given that over 100,000 malicious damage offenses are reporting in NSW each year, you'd think some resources could be spared to look into the problem.  

Maybe our problem is that too many good citizens are reporting malicious damage and vandalism and graffiti, and the numbers are just so huge, the Police find them overwhelming and don't know where to start?  Would it be better if we encouraged people not to report vandalism?  If there were only say 1,000 incidents per year across the entire state of malicious damage, would the Police feel less helpless and overwhelmed and feel they could make a difference by properly investigating and following up each incident?

I think not.

The feedback that I got from "we have more important things to worry about" is that the Police believe that based on the number of reports of graffiti, the public just isn't that concerned about it - so they aren't going to devote much resourcing to it.

They have a point.  As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.  In this case, the Police are not hearing any squeaks from the public.  I find that interesting, given that the government recently introduced new laws regarding graffiti and marker pens - obviously, our MPs are hearing plenty of squeaking.  Why else would they toughen up the existing laws if there was no reason to do so?  There seems to be a major disconnect here between what the government wants and what the Police are doing.  I will leave that to the Police Minister to sort out.

This is the situation we find ourselves in now:

Somewhere in each Police station, there is probably someone running reports on a regular basis on the crime statistics for their area, and these statistics will be pored over by the management team for that area.  If they see a flare up in reports of a particular crime (like bag snatching in a shopping mall for instance), they might setup a temporary task force to tackle it.  Their decisions will be driven by the numbers.  The crimes with the worst numbers or worst trends get the resources - bad numbers are squeaky wheels, Police numbers are the oil.

At present, the Police are not seeing bad numbers when it comes to graffiti, so they aren't devoting any manpower to the problem.  Because businesses (and citizens) aren't seeing any efforts being made by the Police, they don't bother reporting graffiti - they just clean it up and move on, only reporting it if they are making an insurance claim.  This means the Police aren't seeing bad numbers, and around we go again.

It's like the chicken and the egg.  Police won't devote resources unless people report graffiti, and people won't bother to report graffiti unless they believe the Police will bother to action their reports.

This is why I have spent the last 9 months or so trying to encourage people around my area to up the reporting rate.  I don't believe the rate of graffiti application has changed at all - vandals are still spraying it up at the same rate they were before.  What we should be doing though is reporting as many instances of new vandalism as possible.  

Let's assume 100 tags are sprayed per week, and this has been constant for years.  Until now, only 5% might have been reported - those that Council removed.  Police look at the desultory number of reports, and decide it's not worth any action.

But what if we lift the reporting rate to 50%?  Suddenly the numbers jump from 20 reports per month to 200 - a massive increase.  That is going to gain the attention of Police management in a big way, and it will attract resources as a result.

Apart from that, the major benefit from reporting is the impact it can have on a prosecution.  Let's assume a vandal applies 10 tags per week over a year - 500 tags say.  Let's also assume that because of laziness or inertia or bad policy, none are reported.  Then the Police arrest this vandal when they catch them applying tag 501.  How many instances of graffiti will they charge him with?


What is the judge going to do?  

Slap them lightly on the wrist.

What would the judge do if they were charged with 501 separate instances committed over a 12 month period?

Well, some may still slap them lightly on the wrist, but the odd judge might lock them up, and it is less likely that the sentence would be reduced on appeal with a string of offenses like that.

I have started the process of chasing up the major state government utilities to see whether they are reporting graffiti that is scrawled on their assets - the likes of Energy Australia, the RTA and Sydney Water - and the Police!  I haven't had a response yet, but I may have the chance to get some answers next week.  Our local Police command has re-established two community safety precinct committees (CSPC) and they're holding a meeting from 9am to 11.30am on Wed April 8 at Club Five Dock.  I'm going to try and attend, and I'll be asking questions about whether government agencies are bothering to report damage to their assets.

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