Police Trade Guns for Brushes

Graffiti, like this on a wall behind Alko Distributors in Langley Park, can create an intimidating atmosphere in neighborhoods, police say.
Graffiti, like this on a wall behind Alko Distributors in Langley Park, can create an intimidating atmosphere in neighborhoods, police say. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

The spray paint scrawled on the wall of the bowling alley was telling a story, and to Maj. Kevin Davis, it was a particularly ominous one.

The words "Vatos Locos," the name of a street gang primarily of Central American immigrants that operates in Prince George's County, were splashed across the wall. Someone had crossed that out and spray painted "Sur 13," an affiliate of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, another violent gang that makes Davis's job as District 1 commander of the Prince George's County police that much more difficult.

"Sur 13 crossing out Locos doesn't bode well for my crime numbers, not when these guys get upset with each other," Davis said. "We have a sense of urgency to get rid of this."

According to Davis, there is more gang graffiti and gang activity in his 36-square-mile district than there is in the rest of Prince George's County combined. The gangs operating in his northwest district are involved in murder, robbery, prostitution and extorting businesses, he said, and police do not want their logos and territorial markings to stand unchallenged.

So last month, Davis began a program to wash away or paint over graffiti. Davis received $3,800 at the request of County Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) to purchase a power washer and painting equipment. He also established a hotline (301-699-2980 or Police_GraffitiRemoval@co.pg.md.us ) for residents to report graffiti. A team of police officers will respond to remove it.

On a recent outing, Davis, along with Capt. Robert Liberati, Lt. John Decker, Officer George Merkel and three police cadets, roved the county painting over graffiti, including the offending words at the bowling alley in the Hyattsville area. On one such round, police removed graffiti from two dozen schools, fences, street signs and other spots in the county. They plan to repeat the outings each month.

"Some of my peers would argue that this is really not crime-fighting. But it is, it's a holistic approach," Davis said. "It's a message to the gangbangers that we're not going to tolerate their blight."

Beyond its unsightliness, the graffiti can create an intimidating atmosphere, police said.

"A lot of people are apprehensive to take it off because they're afraid the gangs will retaliate," Decker said. For him, the painting is " a break from the routine, and people really appreciate it."

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