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City Council could revise graffiti law

Less than four months ago, Wichita adopted a new anti-graffiti law and made it illegal for anyone to have such items as spray paint or broad-tipped markers within 100 feet of public places.

But today, City Council members will be asked to amend the law, adding that people must show intent to place graffiti on a property.

Under the original ordinance, police could arrest someone just for possessing the banned items.

"It shows we're willing to get it right," council member Jeff Longwell said.

Ram Hull, a 25-year-old Wichita State University student and artist, didn't think the city got it right when the council approved the ordinance in August.

In September, he told the council that the original ordinance opened the door for potential abuse by police.

Since then, police and the city's legal staff have worked together to make a clarification. They are recommending a change that adds a clause that says a person has to show "intent to place graffiti on the property."

"That's basically what I was aiming for," Hull said of the proposed revision. "I think it provides a basis for people to have the things without technically incriminating themselves.

"That was the real objective of what we were trying to do."

Jeff Easter, a Wichita police captain who worked with the legal staff on the revision, said the proposed change "throws a little bit of a kink in the original ordinance we wrote. It's still going to work."

But, he added, "Basically, this takes out the discretion. We understand the issue of people that legitimately are in the park, doing paintings or whatever and when there is a canvas there."

Sharon Dickgrafe, an attorney on the city's law staff, said that while the revision would make it a little more difficult to prove the offense, she didn't think it prevented officers from using discretion.

"It provides another mechanism for the individual to at least justify why they are there and what they are doing," Dickgrafe said. "You have to have a reasonable suspicion to stop someone.

"And that's a real factual determination. If an officer sees kids near graffiti and they have paint on their clothes or hands, then you could certainly stop them."

Easter cited a situation about six weeks ago when the current ordinance allowed police to crack a case involving old graffiti. That's because they were able to arrest some teenagers who had spray-paint cans in their possession.

"We were able to separate them and interview them," he said. "They were able to tell us about all the graffiti and vandalism they had done for the last two weeks. It was all tagged the same; it was all gang stuff.

"Did it work out to our benefit? Yeah, tremendously."

Under the proposed change, he's not sure his officers could arrest those teenagers because they would have to show intent.

But Longwell said the change wouldn't limit police.

"No, not at all," he said.

Council member Jim Skelton said it was important the law is clear.

"We cannot write laws that are ambiguous," he said. "If a law is ambiguous, it does give police power. They're free to do what they want. And that's not what our society is about."

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