In the aftermath of a global viral pandemic, the problem of graffiti and vandalism might seem like small potatoes, but for a small-town petty crime, it still chafes.
Graffiti and vandalism often indicate a decline in an area, deterring business formation. They can be gateways leading taggers and vandals to more serious offenses. The crimes often take time and resources away from other, often-more pressing duties.
In general, dealing with graffiti and vandalism can be a thorn in the side of business owners, government agencies and homeowners.
Some high-profile locations in Durango have been hit – the High Bridge in south Durango and a retaining wall on Colorado Highway 3 have drawn the attention of taggers.
Durango Police Department Cmdr. Jacob Dunlop said crime statistics show graffiti is actually down 50% in the second quarter of 2021 compared with the same quarter in 2020.
However, Dunlop said the big tags in prominent places that have appeared recently have drawn community concern.
“One of the best ways to reduce incidents of graffiti is to remove or cover it as quickly as possible,” Dunlop said. “You kind of remove that social recognition component that is a big part of it. If somebody throws up a tag on the back of a garage, and it’s removed by the next day, then they don’t receive the satisfaction they want.”
One big problem Dunlop said is when public property is tagged, like the High Bridge or the Highway 3 retaining wall, the agency responsible for cleanup is often hard to determine.
Is it the city of Durango or the Colorado Department of Transportation responsible for High Bridge cleanup?
Unclear jurisdictional responsibility means graffiti on public property usually lingers for a while – which is exactly the opposite of the recommendation law officers give to private homeowners.
A city ordinance requires private property owners 10 days to clean up graffiti if they fall victim to taggers.
From 2019 through June 2021, 75% to 85% of graffiti reports came from private property – leading DPD to begin looking at providing money for graffiti removal kits for homeowners who get tagged, Dunlop said.
Currently, Dunlop is organizing a database to compile all of the governmental agencies and other groups, like Atmos Energy and La Plata Electric Association, so the Durango police can quickly notify the responsible agency of a new tag and, at least in theory, speed cleanup.
Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said she’s currently working with the city of Durango to determine who is responsible for the cleanup on the High Bridge.
Just finding out which agency needs to clean tags can be time-consuming.
Whichever agency is responsible for the High Bridge cleanup, it will be difficult.
Dunlop thought a special boom truck probably would have to be brought in and care would need to be taken to keep paint or cleaning solvents from dropping into the Animas River.
Unlike the city, Schwantes said the past couple of years CDOT has noticed an increase in graffiti.
Schwantes said in February and March, the Grandview Bridge in Three Springs over U.S. Highway 160 was repeatedly tagged.
“Crews would go out and paint over it, and within the following week it was back up,” she said. “It was good for a week and then it was back up. We addressed that for about four weeks in a row.”
Another big problem is vandalism with road signs, which are frequently used for target practice.
Signs are also stolen or defaced.
“We had a portable electronic sign that was shot out,” Schwantes said. “We had to order a new electronic panel, but fortunately, it was repairable.”
The problem with graffiti and vandalism is that it takes crews away from duties that probably rank higher in addressing safety issues – repairing guardrails, mowing grass for visibility and to cut down on the fire risk, repairing potholes and removing deer carcasses.
“Our patrols have scheduled work, it varies seasonally, but graffiti and vandalism takes time away from them, so it delays them from getting to work that might be more crucial,” Schwantes said.
Sara Humphrey, city of Durango parks, open space and trails supervisor, also reports more graffiti this summer compared with the same season last year.
The problem now is that Parks and Recreation is short-staffed and graffiti and vandalism just add to an overburdened workload for the hands on deck.
In a normal summer, a cart would be assigned to the Animas River Trail daily to clean up graffiti, but this summer, cleanup sessions are less frequent and several days might go by without graffiti cleanup occurring.
On Monday, two people spent eight hours focused on graffiti removal on the river trail, a 16-hour commitment of staff time, which is precious with a short-handed agency.
“It takes away time from folks who have other things to do,” Humphrey said. “We have people who help with general education, keeping dogs on a leash, the rules for e-bikes, and they do have maintenance duties, so graffiti does take away from time they could be helping the public.”
No one single city park takes the brunt of graffiti, but Humphrey said all of the parks regularly get hit.
“We’ve had graffiti in pretty much every city-owned park we’re actively managing,” she said. “We’ve even had graffiti, this year out in a natural area, on the rock, in Dalla Mountain Park.”
In the San Juan National Forest, Derek Padilla, Dolores District ranger, said while graffiti is a problem, the bigger issue is with vandalism.
Everyone’s seen Forest Service signs shot up by hunters finding their aim, but more serious vandalism occurs, too.
Padilla said gates that block roads and trails that have been removed from motorized use are frequently pulled up so motorized users can gain access to off-limit trails.
“Historically, these trails have been open to motorized use, but in the past several years, as part of the travel management plan, we’ve restricted some of the roads and trails from motorized use,” he said. “We’re in that period where people don’t know the road or trail is restricted or they disagree with the decision, and they’re defacing and tearing down signs and pulling up gates to get in.”
The new restrictions on motorized use were not enacted without thought, Padilla said.
The decisions, he said, were made to protect wildlife habitat, to give animals a certain distance from the hustle and bustle of human activity, to protect a watershed, to protect archaeological remains or to provide a quieter walk in nature for hikers.
“We don’t just do things to do them. There’s a resource reason behind the decisions we’re making,” Padilla said.
DPD’s Dunlop said a final frustration in dealing with both graffiti and vandalism is that culprits are incredibly hard to apprehend.
Taggers may be caught by surveillance cameras, but the footage is usually of such poor quality that suspects can’t be identified, Dunlop said.
Recently, one person was apprehended for graffiti left on the back end of the La Plata County Courthouse.
The taggers somehow managed to hit the building in Durango with the best surveillance cameras in town, and police were able to identify two people who were with the tagger. Those two people led them to the suspect, Dunlop said.
“That’s very much the exception,” he said. “We’re most successful in actually charging people for graffiti if somebody witnesses it or if there’s good quality surveillance, and that’s pretty rare. Most of these crimes are committed at night, which makes it difficult to witness or to catch on camera.”