IMPD: Gang graffiti tracking app underused

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — It’s not hard to find in the alleyways that surround Indianapolis. Gang graffiti with markings like “FSB,” “18th Street,” or “East Side Gang” along with countless others can be found strewn across garages, fences and even homes.

And during a summer when the city of Indianapolis has publicly ramped up its efforts to combat graffiti, I-Team 8 has learned that technology designed to help track who is responsible is being under utilized, according to law enforcement sources.

That technology, known as GARI (Gang Graffiti Automatic Recognition and Interpretation) was developed three years at Purdue University. It was field-tested by nearly a dozen police agencies – including IMPD – in 2011. But according to law enforcement officials, the software and phone application didn’t officially come online until months ago.

Now, more than 150 police agencies have access to it as part of the INGangNetwork, a consortium of Indiana law enforcement agencies created to combat gang activity through inter-departmental sharing of resources.

“This one is a time saver. And that’s a big thing. I don’t care what agency you are with. You need to save time. And this is a time saver,” said Capt. David Allender with IMPD’s Covert Operations Branch. “It’ll save man hours by not having to drive up and down all the alleys just trying to find things to see what’s going on.”

The phone application allows police officers to take pictures of gang graffiti and upload them to a database with thousands of images. Officers can also search the database for patterns within the images, or use a newly developed GPS component to track down graffiti in the field – even when they can’t see it.

When asked if IMPD was using the software to its full potential, Allender said: “No. Not until we get everyone trained on it. Until you get people trained you can’t use anything to the full potential.”

As Allender explained, turnover within IMPD’s gang unit coupled with numerous software upgrades this year caused the GARI software to essentially be placed on the back burner. But just last week, Allender said more officers began training to use the technology. His hope is to eventually expand it beyond officers with the department’s gang unit.

“We’re light years away (from) where we were a few years ago. We are probably the number one contributor as far as the database. But (GARI) is in its infancy and a year from now we’ll be able to say what we are doing – but right now we can’t,” Allender said.

When asked if this software could help cut down on gang crime, Allender added: “In an of itself it’s not going to solve any problems. But it certainly is another tool that’s going to help.”

“There’s no magic bullet,” he added.

Allender said while the software may be able to help police determine what gang is behind the graffiti, it’s often difficult to track down the person responsible because the graffiti can be done in a matter of seconds. But, he says, that doesn’t mean graffiti isn’t a problem.

“Most of the time you are not going to find hardcore, violent, gang members out here putting graffiti on back garages and alleys,” he said. “If you have two young kids who are really into this subculture, which is one that encourages violence, it could end up in some violence.”

Gang app development 

Professor Edward Delp and his team at Purdue University’s VACCINE (Visual Analytics for Command, Control and Interoperability Environments) developed the GARI app from a small laboratory on the West Lafayette campus.

“It’s a hard problem. I like working on hard problems,” Delp told I-Team 8. “This laboratory works on hard problems. If it isn’t a hard problem. I don’t want to work on it.”

The virtual reality component, Delp said was just completed with the last seven months. It allows officers to hold up their phones and in camera mode determine where gang graffiti is located. PhD student Albert Parra agreed to demonstrate the application for I-Team 8.

He showed us numerous functions of the app itself: from researching individual images, to taking color samples from a picture of graffiti and cross referencing it with other images. Doing so, Parra explained, can help an officer identify patterns within separate pieces of graffiti.

The theory: the more data an officer has, the better equipped he or she will be to determine where gangs are active and what territories they claim to possess.

“I think we’re very happy to see our stuff being used and the type of feedback that we’re getting,” Delp said. “I consider us to be good amateurs at interpreting gang graffiti.”

Delp added that his lab tries to update the application every two to three months.

Delp and his team’s work is part of Purdue’s VACCINE center, which is funded by federal money from the Department of Homeland Security. Over the past five years, VACCINE has received nearly $20 million, according to university officials. I-Team 8 sought records detailing how much money was steered towards the development of the app. To date, the university has yet to produce those records.

In an email to I-Team 8, a university official wrote this week that it could be “weeks” before those materials are available.

Prison tattoos 

The latest component to the app, Delp and others confirm, is the addition of thousands of images of tattoos from roughly 4,200 gang members in Indiana prisons.

I-Team 8 interviewed the gang investigator with the state’s Department of Corrections responsible for monitoring those images and uploading them to the database, but he did not want to be identified and asked that his face not be shown on television.

“We collect all the information on who those people are associated with. We chronologically catalog their tattoos as far as their development through the ranks – their rank as they move up through the organizations. (And then) we will pass that information off to outside law enforcement agencies as these gang members get released,” the investigator told I-Team 8.

The app, he says, helps law enforcement officials “keep track of what’s popping up in the areas where these guys are released to. If we have a member of a particular group that’s released into an area and there wasn’t any graffiti there before, but now all of the sudden since that person has been released that group’s graffiti keeps popping up in that area, it gives us a lead back to that person to say ‘we need to go talk to this guy because that graffiti is probably associated with this person,’” the IDOC gang investigator explained.

When asked to characterize the technology, he said: “I think it’s allowed for a better understanding of where the groups are most active at and where we are starting to see conflicts between the groups.”

IDOC would not agree to release images of the tattoos, but did provide I-Team 8 with several examples of gang graffiti which have been uploaded to the database used by law enforcement.

City crackdown 

Over the course of five weekends this summer, Department of Public Works and Department of Public Safety employees took part in a pilot program to wipe out graffiti from some of the city’s most blighted areas.

Deemed a success, the city is now in the process of considering ways to create a permanent graffiti abatement unit, according to Al Larsen, a DPS spokesman.

The city is hoping to continue the program through the use of grant money from the Indy Public Safety Foundation, Larsen said.

“We currently do not have the ability to fund the program from within the DPS budget. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t prioritize the program into the budget in future years,” Larsen wrote in an email to I-Team 8.

Residents interviewed by I-Team 8 say they’re upset with the vandalism done to their homes, particularly in areas that were struck after the city’s abatement team eradicated some of the graffiti.

Map of Reported Graffiti

“I just thought it was disrespectful and that you shouldn’t just go around painting other people’s property,” said a woman named Mable, who declined to give her last name. Her garage was tagged this summer. She knows her other neighbors on Euclid Avenue have fallen victim too.

“Yeah I was upset because my garage ain’t bothering nobody,” she said. “It shouldn’t be painted.”

The city’s public effort to clean up graffiti came on the heels of the city’s new graffiti ordinance, which began in April and targets property owners who fail to clean it up.

The most recent city records indicate that more than 140 violations were noted; of those, 17 people were cited for non-compliance. The rest complied or were scheduled for follow-inspections, according to the city’s code enforcement spokesman.

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