City may redraw laws on graffiti


The Mirror

Federal Way is looking at ways to strengthen its graffiti laws.

But King County Council member Pete von Reichbauer says the entire region needs to work together.

At the July 5 city council meeting, city officials are expected to present the results of their research into Federal Way’s current graffiti ordinances, as well as what other cities have done in response to what’s become a widespread issue.

“Graffiti is not by any means just a Federal Way problem,” Interim City Manager Derek Matheson said, adding that cities across the region have experienced an explosion in graffiti incidents.

As the law stands, those caught in the act of creating graffiti or those positively identified by witnesses could face a gross misdemeanor charge.

Aaron Walls, the city’s chief prosecutor, said such charges could result in up to one year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. Penalties can vary if the suspect is a juvenile, he said.

Walls also said those prosecuted for graffiti may also be ordered to pay for repairs to damaged property.

Prosecuting them is one thing, but Code Compliance Officer Martin Nordby said catching those creating graffiti in the first place is difficult.

“More often than not, they’re not caught,” he said.

Most instances of graffiti, he said, take just a minute or two. Before anyone knows what happened, it’s over and the perpetrator is gone.

“We can’t be everywhere,” Nordby said. “It’s really hard to catch that kind of behavior.”

Matheson said the majority of the city’s graffiti response is the result of complaints by residents.

“I wish we could respond faster,” he said. “Given the volume of code enforcement complaints we have, it’s not possible to respond immediately.”

Part of the city’s approach to the crime has been to get graffiti cleaned up immediately.

“The important thing is the graffiti get removed as quickly as possible,” Nordby said. “It tends to deter additional incidents.”

He added most people who create graffiti do so to make a name for themselves, something that’s more difficult to do when the graffiti doesn’t stay up for long.

“They want to make a mark,” he said. “If they don’t see it, there’s no use putting it there.”

To help encourage a quick cleanup, Nordby said the city has a program called the Graffiti Removal Incentive Program, or GRIP.

In a partnership with New Lumber and Hardware, the city offers graffiti removal kits. Part of the program includes letters of notification that are sent to affected property owners, encouraging them to quickly remove graffiti. The letter acts as a voucher, which can be used to purchase up to $25 in cleaners or replacement materials such as paint or wood panels.

For popular graffiti targets like utility boxes, Matheson said the city will notify the proper utility about the incident.

A pervasive problem

According to a report on graffiti by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, graffiti cleanup costs taxpayers an estimated $12 billion each year, not including the costs to clean up graffiti on private residences.

“I don’t care how you slice it, that’s a lot of bucks,” Nordby said. “It’s a national problem. It’s caught a lot of communities off-guard.”

Nordby said graffiti hasn’t always been such a problem. The last time graffiti was discussed as a city-wide problem, he said, was back in 1992. Only in the past two years has graffiti become more of an issue, he said.

The city isn’t alone in seeking new ways to tackle the recent rise in graffiti.

As the chairman of King County’s Regional Policy Committee, von Reichbauer said he’s trying to address the issue on a more widespread level.

“I believe graffiti cannot be done city by city. It has to be a regional approach,” he said.

The committee, he said, is also researching what other areas have done in response to graffiti, including cities that have placed restrictions on spray paint cans.

“I’m in the exploratory stage of examining the strengths and weaknesses of existing laws,” he said.

He also said graffiti is a pervasive problem, adding graffiti that isn’t promptly removed seems to encourage more instances and drag down property values.

“It’s almost like a cancer in a community,” von Reichbauer said. “It’s amazing what graffiti can do to demoralize a community.”

Contact Philip Palermo at (253) 925-5565 or

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