The Nassau County Graffiti Task Force has been in effect for approximately four years and in that time has reduced the amount of graffiti on Nassau County roadways almost 100 percent. They have now brought the effort closer to home and are working to clean up neighborhoods.
Gary Hudes, who has served as the chairman of the task force since its inception, brought the problem of graffiti to Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta's attention approximately four years ago and has worked to educate the community about the problem, clean up the graffiti and prevent future vandalism since that time. Hudes, who is also the president of the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce, had gone to the county executive with a committee from the council of chambers, and they expressed their concerns to Gulotta, who in turn recognized those concerns and established the task force.
The Graffiti Task Force was put together with 21 agencies, including the Nassau County District Attorney, the Nassau County Police Department, the Nassau County Probation Department, the Nassau County Sheriff's Department, the New York State Police, New York State Department of Transportation, and the Long Island Rail Road. Also included in the task force were superintendents of schools from various districts across the county.
The task force spent two years intensively studying the situation, and looking at other places across the country that had a graffiti problem, what worked for them and what didn't work. What the task force found was that when there is graffiti in a community people do not feel as though they are in a safe neighborhood and they feel as though gangs, rather than the police have control in the area.
Based on the information they gathered, the task force came out with a full report which included 51 recommendations, divided into four basic categories. The four categories were education, awareness, cleanup, and law enforcement. The biggest problem they saw initially, according to Hudes, was that at that point 99.9 percent of the parkways that transverse the county had graffiti on virtually every overpass. "Today, due to a cooperative effort between the Nassau County Police Department, the Sheriff's Department and its prisoner program, the NYS DOT, the LIRR and the state police, we now have the parkways 99.9 percent graffiti-free," said Hudes.
The reason behind graffiti, explained Hudes, is that the vandal is seeking recognition. He added that graffiti vandals often have very low self esteem and are not part of organized groups or activities such as sports teams, the band, or key club. He said that people who belong to groups such as those find positive reinforcement in those groups and do not need the notoriety that the graffiti vandals are seeking. It is this desire for recognition that causes the graffiti vandals to do the graffiti in very visible areas such as the highest point of overpasses on the highways. Educating people on the causes behind graffiti was just one aspect of the task force.
Another step in eliminating graffiti that was taken was a law that Hudes helped push through, requiring stores to lock up their spray paint and extra wide tipped magic markers and to make it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to buy these items. The task force and store owners found that the spray paint was being stolen from stores and the decreased availability of the paint made the vandalism less desirable. Despite the fact that store owners were against locking up the paints at first, Hudes said this has been very been a successful system and a deterrent to teenagers.
Cleaning up the graffiti was an important step in the task force's mission. The clean up on the parkways started with the prisoner program through the Nassau County Correctional facility. Very low risk prisoners were screened and then selected to work on the roads to paint over the graffiti. The prisoners were supervised by the sheriff's department, the county police and the state police. Then the DOT took out a privatization contract to clean up the graffiti on state highways. They went out to bid and private companies were selected to clean up those roadways. The companies were paid for each piece of graffiti they cleaned up in a designated amount of time.
A new pilot program that the task force is doing brings the various townships into the mix, cleaning up the downtown areas. There is a form which has been distributed to the chambers of commerce and to members of the task force and when those people see graffiti in a commercial area such as a downtown, retail or industrial area, they fill out the form and fax it to either the Town of Hempstead, North Hempstead, or Oyster Bay, depending on where the graffiti is. The form is sent to the building department or building compliance department, which then contacts the landlord of the property and informs them that the graffiti must be cleaned up. The whole building does not have to be painted, noted Hudes, but the graffiti must be blocked out. "It takes away the recognition," said Hudes.
Hudes says that graffiti is something that really irritates him. "If you want to do something for recognition, stay in school, excel at something that is socially acceptable," said Hudes, adding that they have found that often acts of vandalism later turn into other criminal activities. "I see it as an anti-social vandalism that costs millions of dollars a year on Long Island to clean up graffiti and to right the vandalism that has been done," he said. The clean up efforts done by the task force are done with volunteers and the supplies are paid for through grants that have been applied for and received.
Hudes explained that the task force goes by the broken windows theory, which says that if someone throws a rock through a window and nobody fixes it, then others see that the building is not cared for and think it is okay to throw more rocks through the windows until all the windows in that building are broken. Hudes stated, "Graffiti left alone, breeds more graffiti." The sooner graffiti is cleaned up, according to Hudes, the better because it take the recognition away from the vandal. If they do get angry that it was cleaned up and return, said Hudes, then it once again should be cleaned up very quickly. If it becomes a consistent problem then the police can be brought in, he added.