Staring Down Vandalism

Surprisingly, modern American cities and villages of the Early Roman Empire have something in common: they have been invaded by the same marauders, vandals.

In the Roman Empire, that’s Vandals with a capital “V.” The Vandals were East Germanic people who overran Gaul, Spain and northern Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries, and sacked Rome in 455. According to historical accounts, they earned a reputation for plundering, pirating and otherwise wreaking havoc.

The modern-day vandal is spelled with a lower case “v,” but the wreaking of havoc in American cities--while not on the same political plane as invading armies--is still causing parks and recreation professionals across the country to wail and gnash their teeth.

Who’s To Blame?

A vandal in today’s context is someone who willfully or maliciously defaces or destroys public or private property. Vandalism is a pervasive--and in many places an increasing--drain on public resources and a concern for officials.

“This is the worst I have seen in 27 years,” said Mario Parenti, the outgoing director of parks and recreation of a city in the Chicago area. Quoted in an article on vandalism in an August 2 newspaper article, he said, “Kids don’t really have a whole lot to do, and that causes problems.” Incidents included a garbage can set on fire, obscene language written on park benches and trellises dismantled.

It is true incidents tend to increase during summer. Some estimates put incidents involving youth at 90 percent of all cases. The Kent, Wash., Parks and Recreation Department issued an announcement on its Web site, putting vandals on notice and soliciting citizens for assistance.

“While walking our trails, driving by or using our parks, we strongly encourage anyone who witnesses an act of vandalism being committed to call 9-1-1 immediately and report it,” the announcement urged. It went on to list the parks office number to report vandalism already committed, but not witnessed. “We want our parks to be clean, safe and appealing. Vandals truly ruin that for all of us,” the announcement concluded.

It should be noted the term “youth” can have different parameters. To some, a 20-year-old is still a “youth,” but seemingly old enough to know better. However, there are incidents where young adults engage in acts of vandalism.

Defining Vandalism

Then again, it depends on how one defines vandalism. In his book, The Psychology of Vandalism, author Dr. Arnold P. Goldstein refers to the definition of vandalism as a “hodgepodge concept.” Goldstein has invested his life in research and education regarding aggressive and asocial behavior among children and youths. He has authored more than 100 books on the subject.

Goldstein points out the definition, sources and remediation of vandalism have long been a concern in American society. He cites articles dating to the turn of the 20th century, containing passages that easily could be mistaken for today’s world.

After researching more than 75 years of articles, he finds “from these and later sources there emerged equally numerous and diverse definitions of just what vandalism is.”

He provides a laundry list, ranging from “a willful act of physical damage that lowers the aesthetic or economic value of an object or area,” to “all forms of property destruction, deliberate or not.”

No matter how precise the definition, there is no doubt vandalism in its many forms has increased over time across the country and around the world.

However, Goldstein notes that evaluation of the references reveals a steady buildup of material in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but in the ‘80s, writing about the nature of vandalism and its reduction virtually ceased.

“My hypothesis regarding this abrupt near-cessation of written evidence of professional interest in vandalism as a focus of inquiry rests on the notion of ‘downsizing deviance,’” Goldstein wrote. In layman’s terms, he explains “downsizing deviance” as a creeping indifference to lower levels of a given transgression as higher levels of transgressions increase. In other words, society today has become numb to acts of vandalism that 20 years ago might have spurred a citizens’ intervention.

Another way of stating this is if lower levels of vandalism--such as trashing an area or spray painting buildings--are not acknowledged and addressed by citizens and authorities, eventually that conduct becomes the accepted norm.

In this respect, vandalism is like any other crime: if it is ignored at the least-offensive level, it will rise to the most extreme. Like dealing with the bully on the playground, if nobody stands up to him, his actions will escalate. At the farthest end of the spectrum, “downsizing deviance” can be vividly demonstrated by the global war on terrorism. Since the late 1970s, there have been terrorist acts against the United States, starting with aircraft hijackings, escalating to hostage-taking and killing and, of course, reaching a peak with September11, 2001.

While some may consider it a stretch to compare vandalism to terrorism, a common problem is that it is difficult to catch the culprits. Vandalism is often a “hit-and-run” crime, leaving no witnesses and little for police investigators to go on. That’s the primary reason people often leave vandalism unreported--they don’t believe anything will come of reporting it and, unfortunately, in a majority of cases, they’re right.

Talk Trash

It is difficult to talk about vandalism without talking about trash left behind in parks and public areas by thoughtless people. Littering is at the low end of the crime scale, but can often be a harbinger for more serious crimes. Again, left unreported, the rule of “downsizing deviance” comes into effect.

Trash can often be the result of vandalism and, conversely, where excessive trash is routinely found, vandalism isn’t far behind.

Last year in King County, Wash., the parks department had to close parks and natural areas because of excessive trash.

"It’s a sad reality that every summer we see a dramatic increase in the amount of vandalism and abuse to our parks, and it’s become particularly nasty at Flaming Geyser this year. The situation there is out of control and getting worse," said Kevin Brown, parks director, in a news release on the county’s Web site. "We never want to close a public park, but this abuse is leaving us no choice."

In 2005, King County taxpayers footed a cleanup and repair bill of more than $30,000--an increase of $10,000 from 2004. Vandals struck 68 sites in 2005--a 50 percent increase from 2004. County park crews spent 431 hours repairing damage in 2005.

Vandalism comes in different forms. Broken windows, destroyed parks equipment, spray-painted buildings, damaged lights--you name it, parks and rec people have seen it and had to fix it.

Fight Back

So how do parks professionals combat the problem? There is a number of imaginative ways.

Video cameras are becoming more of a lethal weapon in deterring, or catching, vandals. Technology allows parks professionals to install hard-wired or wireless cameras tied to a remote digital recorder. Some systems can be monitored at a desk computer over the Internet, miles from where the camera is located. The higher-end cameras can “patrol” their pre-set and changeable sectors 24 hours a day and record everything that happens.

Wherever cameras are installed, signs should accompany them to alert people the area is under video surveillance. This not only alerts law-abiding citizens, but often times will be enough to deter would-be vandals. There has been some success with putting up signs alone, or signs with “simulated” (i.e., fake) cameras.

While any combination of camera methods may not stop vandalism, it does enhance the chances of catching vandals. It pays to spend more money and get a quality camera to try to identify faces. Catch and prosecute one or two offenders from camera evidence, and once word gets out that cameras are covering an area, vandals will avoid it.

The downside of cameras is the “Big Brother” syndrome, not to mention the potential for lawsuits involving inappropriate use of the devices. Research reveals most lawsuits deal with cameras inside buildings, where the opportunity for misuse is greater. Generally, cameras in open public spaces, such as parks or parking lots, do not lend themselves to such misuse. However, it behooves local governments to check with legal consultants to ensure they don’t step over the line.

Another potential downside of cameras is they can give the public a false sense of security. This is especially true in remote areas, where people need to be watchful for more disturbing crimes, such as assault or robbery. Cameras may give a feeling of invulnerability, but a would-be attacker may either take measures to mask his identity or may not care if he is seen.

In his book, Goldstein suggests other intervention methods:

· Target hardening is the use of devices or materials designed to obstruct vandals. Examples include toughened glass made of acrylic or poly-carbon, window-covering lattice or screens to prevent breakage, bolting trash cans to concrete bases or tethering them with chains, tamper-proof sign hardware and fasteners and reinforced phone or meter coin boxes.

· Access control involves architectural features and mechanical and electronic devices to control access to areas prone to vandalism. There are obvious devices, such as key control systems, metal door and window shutters and locked gates. But there are other means, such as placing prickly bushes next to windows to make casual tampering unattractive, or putting “un-climbable” trees and bushes next to a building.

· Screening those entering or exiting an area increases the likelihood would-be perpetrators won’t want to enter for fear of detection. Metal detectors, motion detectors, perimeter alarm systems and tags that set off alarms when passing the sensor station are examples.

· Making the means of criminal behavior less available or less potentially injurious also can be effective. For example, a person must be over 18 in many places to buy spray paint, and must show ID. Promptly removing debris from construction sites removes potential random vandalism tools. Facilities can be designed to place permanent signs, building names and decorative features out of reach from ground level.

· Formal surveillance methods can be effective. This includes police and citizen patrols, neighborhood-watch programs and on-site living quarters for security staff or information hotlines. Natural surveillance methods include designing facilities so that high-risk areas are in plain sight and well lit, without tall trees or bushes to provide natural cover.

Rapid removal of damaged property or graffiti denies the satisfaction vandals may take in viewing the results of their crime. Vandalism left untended for long periods gives an area an unkempt appearance, and not only signals the beginning of “downsizing deviance” in the community, but also earmarks the area as unwatched, thus encouraging other vandals.

Vandalism is a plague that has been with society for a long time and, like the war on terror today or the war on Vandals in ancient Rome, it likely will be with society for a long time. Treat it like the serious crime it is, and don’t tolerate it, even in its lowest form. It is easier to deal with it in its early stages than after it has become a major problem.

Randy Gaddo has for 10 years been the Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation and library) in Peachtree City, Ga. He and his staff work with 11 different youth sports associations and three special-interest associations. Prior to that, he was a U.S. Marine Corps public affairs officer for 20 years. As part of his duties, he was a community relations liaison with various volunteer groups in the cities surrounding bases where he was stationed. He just completed work for a master’s degree in Public Administration, with much formal education on working with volunteers. He can be reached by e-mail at