Wichita police say a new ordinance outlawing broad-tipped markers and spray paint on or near public property will give them a needed tool to fight an increasing graffiti problem. But a few days after the City Council approved the ordinance, some residents say they worry that innocent people who use the materials for legitimate purposes, such as artwork, could be fined or jailed.
Under the law, expected to receive final approval Tuesday, people are banned from having spray paint, broad-tipped markers and other potential graffiti tools on or within 100 feet of public property. Violators can be fined $250 to $1,000 and jailed for up to six months.
Ram Hull is a 25-year-old cartoonist and illustrator who likes to go to a public park on a nice day and use a wide-tipped marker to draw.
With the new law, Hull said, he could be committing a crime. He fears that he would automatically come under suspicion for possessing his markers.
He doesn't trust that if he tells an officer he is an artist it will keep him from being arrested.
But police Capt. Jeff Easter, who has been dealing with gang graffiti and other forms of illegal graffiti for years, said the law doesn't target the scenario that Hull describes.
A big reason police sought the ordinance, Easter said, is that in many cases officers have stopped suspected graffiti vandals at or near the scene of the crime — with paint — but couldn't charge them because they weren't caught in the act.
Now, in that same situation, police could charge a suspect with possessing an illegal item, even though they can't pursue vandalism charges, he said.
A police officer is not going to stop an artist sitting on a park bench and drawing on a pad, Easter said. The officer would have to have a reasonable suspicion, or probable cause, that a crime was taking place — that the person on the park bench was scrawling graffiti on the bench.
Another critic of the new law, Chandra Dickson, said her 15-year-old son carries art supplies to and from school.
"And now I'm afraid he's going to be arrested for carrying those markers," she said.
To which Easter responded, "We're not targeting artists or kids."
An officer would have to have probable cause to search a teen's backpack, he said.
"We can't just stop kids walking down the street" unless there is reasonable suspicion they are committing a crime, he said.
Easter said that while he understands the mother's concerns, "we're targeting the kids that are out there doing the graffiti, period."
Easter said anyone who has questions about the new ordinance can call his North Patrol station, 316-350-3400, and ask to speak with a supervisor.
Hull, the illustrator, said he plans to produce leaflets outlining concerns about the new ordinance. The leaflets could be passed out at art-related events, including Final Friday.
Council member Paul Gray, who cast the only vote against the measure, said it is an unnecessary law that can't be fairly enforced.
Council member Jim Skelton, who cast one of the six votes for the law, said he has heard no complaints against the ordinance. What he has heard, Skelton said, is from "people who want something done here" to stem graffiti.
"This is a community-wide problem here," Skelton said. "It's vandalism. ... People are sick and tired of it."
Much of the graffiti is done by street gangs. They put symbols on walls to mark turf and threaten rival gangs.
City statistics show that in 2009, the Central Inspection Department's cost for removing graffiti rose to $290,954, up about $10,000 from the year before, and that the number of graffiti removals by the department rose from 1,876 in 2008 to 2,758 in 2009. Those numbers don't include removal by private entities and the Parks Department.
If the ordinance needs to be tweaked later, Skelton said, he would be open to that.
For now, Skelton said, "I want to find additional tools the police can use."