Officer tags social media to help crack graffiti cases
If you aren’t looking for it, you don’t see it.
But once spotted, graffiti seems to be everywhere. It adorns bridge abutments, buildings, Jersey barriers, highway signs and even seawalls.
Warwick Police Officer Gary Driscoll, whose beat covers Pontiac; the Rhode Island and Warwick Malls; Jefferson Boulevard; and portions of Post Road, found himself doing that one “slow Sunday” this spring. He strayed from Jefferson Boulevard and took a look at the Amtrak right-of-way. Graffiti was everywhere and a lot of it had similar “tags.”
Driscoll had been involved with tracking down a duo responsible for defacing property at NYLO Hotel several years ago and, while they were never arrested, he thought he might have a chance of finding those responsible for the latest rash of graffiti
This was no casual hunt, according to Captain John Coffey.
“He sought out the complaints and put the pieces together,” said Coffey.
Driscoll cast a wide net. He involved Amtrak Police, the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the Department of Transportation and spread the word in his own department. He also turned to the Internet and social media, learning the ways of a subculture that eventually led him to two suspects.
One, Nicholas Elliott Stocker, 20, of 2 Friendly St., Warwick, was arrested on June 19 and charged with six counts of vandalism and malicious damage to property. Multiple warrants have been issued for the second suspect, Melvin Gonzales, 19, of 16 Charles St., Warwick.
“That’s my beat area,” Driscoll said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s enough of those tags.”
He figured that he wasn’t the only one annoyed by the graffiti. To his surprise, he checked police records and found only a few complaints had been filed. He would need formal complaints to bring the perpetrators to justice.
He started with one of the big victims, Amtrak, by making contact with Amtrak Police Officer Alexander Vilardo. He learned that the tags, “YSO,” “WYSO” and “UTOS” were not limited to Warwick. Walking along the tracks, Driscoll found cans of blue and black spray paint, gloves and a bag. He brought the stuff in, hoping to recover fingerprints, but there were none.
But he thought those responsible might have left tracks elsewhere.
Driscoll turned to his 13-year-old daughter to navigate the Internet and to access Facebook. One website yielded familiar tag names that, with his daughter’s help, he linked to Facebook. He also found pictures of tags and a picture of Stocker standing near the railroad. There were also pictures of people painting tags, but they wore masks or had their faces blurred out.
Driscoll passed pictures of the tags to other officers in the department.
It paid off.
In early May, a detective mentioned to Driscoll that DEM police came upon two individuals marking an underpass on Teft Hill Road in Exeter. One was arrested, while the other eluded police. The one arrested was Stocker. The other was identified as Gonzales. DEM police also confiscated a camera, gloves, masks, spray paint and bolt cutters, which Driscoll believes were used to cut fences for access to Amtrak and other property.
The picture of Stocker looked like a match to the Internet and Facebook pictures.
But Driscoll needed to build a case. He needed complaints. He visited property owners, discovering some weren’t even aware their buildings had been defaced. Others assumed police had more serious cases to follow and never filed a report.
From other officers, he learned of a graffiti problem in Conimicut. Many of the tags in that neighborhood are M3GO, which is also prevalent in other parts of the city.
He hooked up with Vilardo and together they took an inventory of tags along the railroad. Driscoll learned that one victim of graffiti estimated damages at $750. Another put the cost at $10,000.
“They’re causing thousands of dollars of damage, probably more than $100,000,” said Coffey.
Vandalism and malicious injury to property are misdemeanors, but that could change under legislation recently approved by the State Senate. Introduced by Senator Maryellen Goodwin, the law would eliminate the break usually given to first-time offenders and make them subject to a fine up to $1,000 and 200 hours of community service. Third-time convictions would be a felony punishable by up to two years in jail, $2,000 in fines and 300 hours of community service.
Coffey called graffiti a “gateway” to other crimes and, in particular, larceny to support the purchase of paint, masks and other clothing. Referring to the NYLO case, Coffey said Pontiac neighborhood larcenies stopped when the graffiti stopped. He said a “very active” neighborhood crime watch was largely responsible.
“A lot of people say, ‘It’s just graffiti,’” said Driscoll, “It’s not just graffiti.”
He said it is part of a series of acts that show disrespect for property and the law.
So, to further crack down, Coffey said the department is building a data bank of “tags” to share with other law enforcement agencies in an effort to arrest more perpetrators.