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Ald. Zalewski: Make graffiti vandals pay

Grafitti around 38th   Kedzie Chicago. Monday June 18 2012 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

Grafitti around 38th & Kedzie in Chicago. Monday, June 18, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 20, 2012 6:20AM

Concerned about a spike in gang graffiti in Chicago neighborhoods and a slowdown in city removal of it, an influential alderman is gearing up for a major offensive against juvenile vandals and their parents.

Two days after vandals defaced a memorial to fallen Chicago police officers near Soldier Field, Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) proposed taking graffiti cases out of the hands of city hearing officers and returning them to the courts, where judges might be more inclined to throw the book at offenders.

As it stands, most graffiti cases end up before hearing officers who issue tickets — not judges who could put the vandals in jail. Zalewski’s proposal would change that, upping the realistic chance of jail.

In addition, Zalewski wants to dramatically increase the fines for graffiti vandals — from $750 and up to 1,500 hours of community service to $2,000 and “not less than three days” in jail or 2,500 hours of community service.

His ordinance would also double the minimum fine for parents or legal guardians — from $250 to $500 and raise the maximum fine from $750 to $1,000.

For decades, Chicago gangs have used graffiti to mark their territories. Graffiti is also used to threaten rivals or take credit for shootings, which can lead to retaliation.

Enemies of the Latin Kings might scrawl “King Killa” on a wall to brag about murdering a member of the gang, for example.

But a lot of the graffiti marring city subways and viaducts is done by urban artists — taggers — who don’t have anything to do with gangs.

Recently, gangs have started to “cyber-tag,” portraying their graffiti and symbols in online videos to boast about their deeds.

Zalewski, chairman of the City Council’s Aviation Committee, said he was disgusted by the red spray painted graffiti that nearly marred a Father’s Day mass for the families of fallen police officers. But he’s equally concerned about the 30 garages in a 1.5-block stretch of his Southwest Side ward that got tagged with graffiti last week.

“Many of these offenders are just getting a slap on the wrist and they’re right back out there doing it again. If some of these kids sit in jail for a few days instead of getting hit with a fine they never pay, they’ll think twice about doing it again,” the alderman said.

‘Need to be sent away’

Residents of the 5100 block of South Leamington — which bore the brunt of the last week’s tagging Zalewski referred to — were united in support of tougher sanctions.

“They’re young kids who know they’ll get away with it,” said Felicia Puga, 18. “They need to be sent away.”

Puga said she called police after witnessing three people jump out of a Chevrolet Suburban last Wednesday night to brazenly spray paint the symbols of the Latin King street gang on garages on the block of neatly-kept bungalows.

“It was over so quickly — the police didn’t get here in time,” she said.

One of the vandalized homes belongs to the seriously ill 89-year-old mother of Charlie Kawalec. Kawalec’s sister spotted the graffiti Thursday morning, but neither she nor Kawalec have told their mother about the incident.

“That’s something you don’t want to worry an older person with — she’s and lived here 40 years and there haven’t been any gang problems until now,” Kawalec said.

That was also the view of Eric Calzade, 28. The vandals broke into his garage to steal the paint used in last week’s attack, he said.

“This isn’t 26th Street — Garfield Ridge has always been a safe neighborhood where a lot of police officers live,” he said.

“Now my parents are talking about selling the house where they’ve lived for 35 years at a loss so that they can move somewhere safer. I hope the police catch these kids and lock them up - they should definitely make the punishments bigger.”

Some, but not all cuts, restored

Although Mayor Rahm Emanuel restored some of the money he initially cut from the city’s graffiti removal budget under pressure from aldermen, Zalewski said the Department of Streets and Sanitation has “less personnel than ever” to remove graffiti.

“We were getting rid of it in one or two days. Now, it’s taking up to two weeks. If graffiti just lays out there, people get the impression that the area is gang-infested. They lose faith in their community. Property values go down. I’m not blaming Streets and San. They don’t have the personnel. But we have to fight back,” said Zalewski, a former deputy commissioner in Streets and San.

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.

Even so, the Emanuel administration insists that it has used a grid system similar to the one now being implemented for garbage collection to boost the daily productivity of graffiti removal crews by 16 percent.

At the same time, graffiti removal requests to the city’s 311 helpline are down 18 percent — from 65,287 through June 15, 2011, to 53,527 during the same period this year, officials said.

With the budget cuts, the average graffiti removal request stays open for seven days — a day longer than a year ago, officials said.

Despite concerns about an apparent spike in graffiti vandalism tied to the mayor’s budget cuts, Emanuel spokesman Tom Alexander insisted that the city is keeping a lid on the insidious problem that threatens to create an atmosphere that breeds gang crime.

“The new ‘blitz’ system for combating graffiti is doing a great job of getting rid of graffiti from our streets, saving taxpayer resources and keeping our communities clean and safe. We believe that the system is working well and has resulted in graffiti requests being handled promptly and efficiently,” Alexander said.

“The new system also affords us flexibility in cases of dangerous or particularly offensive graffiti, so we can deal with these cases immediately. In short, the system has worked exactly as we intended.”

Al Cacciotolo, president of the Garfield Ridge Neighborhood Watch Group, said a crackdown is needed to squelch a “spike” in graffiti and a slowdown in the city’s efforts to remove it.

“Obviously, they’re trying to stake out a territory or intimidate the area. We need to get this thing cleaned up to show that, ‘We won—not you.’ If it sits there for more than a couple of days, it shows that the gangbanger won,” Cacciotolo said, noting that five “major buildings” along Archer Avenue were hit last weekend.

Cacciotolo noted that, under current law, graffiti vandals only go to court if they’re caught in the act doing more than $500 worth of damage. Most of the damage is for less than that amount. And since most offenders do their dirty-work between midnight and 3 a.m., they are rarely caught in the act, he said.

“We’re so pumped up that the aldermen is taking the lead on this. We want these guys to pay.”

When Daley was mayor

During the 22-year reign of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, the city spent $4 million-a-year on Graffiti Blasters — sandblasters that used baking soda instead of sand to clean tens of thousands of buildings defaced by vandals.

In 2007, Daley tried to put the financial squeeze on parents of young vandals, only to be thwarted by aldermen concerned the new fines were too steep for poor families and grandparents struggling to raise their children’s children.

The fines were subsequently reduced by two-thirds — from at least $750 and as much as $3,000 or restitution, whichever is greater, to $250.

Daley responded with trademark sarcasm. He offered to reduce the fine to $5 and raise it to $500 after “the second or third or the fourth or 50th” offense. He also said he proposed the fines because “everyone is sick and tired of cleaning it off when it’s the same people” causing all the damage.

Contributing: Kim Janssen, Frank Main

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