In recent years, law enforcement efforts have put a lid on much of the gang-related illegal activity in the area. But the release valve seems to have become Kosciusko County road signs.
“Last year was actually a very bad year for spray painting,” said Jeff Beeler, Kosciusko County Highway Department sign technician. During 2013, about 180 country road signs — about three times the usual number — were defaced; mostly with gang symbols.
Some of the destruction is small enough Beeler can let it go and not replace the sign immediately. “But then there’s stuff that comes up that’s vulgar. I don’t want kids going around asking, ‘Mommy, what does that mean?’” he said.
The highway department reports incidents of spray-painted signs to the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department. The number of incidents tends to peak during the summer when kids are out of school, and near Halloween, according to KCSD Sgt. Chad Hill. Regardless of the season, though, he said defacing signs is against the law and offenders are charged under criminal mischief statutes.
“They’ve been so helpful, both county and the city. We really appreciate the cooperation,” Beeler said.
Warsaw Police Officer Mike Cox, a gang specialist, interprets graffiti messages and keep tabs on the groups activities. Two multi-gang alliances — the Folks Nation and People Nation — appear often in local tags. He added some of the gang-related graffiti is not actually perpetrated by gang members, but instead by “wanna-bes,” or young people who identify with the gang culture. Either way, the county has to spend time and money undoing the damage.
Last year, technology gave Beeler another option to combat the vandalism. A new film that’s available as an overlay resists permanent marker and spray paint. The material forces markers and paint to sort of bubble up instead of adhering to the film’s surface. The product has become the department’s preferred solution for reducing the $15,000 in sign replacement expenses it’s looking at from last year’s tagging.
The overlay adds $10 to the cost of each sign, which is only one-third the cost of replacing the sign, and that doesn’t even take labor into consideration. With the overlay, Beeler explained, “I just take some regular window cleaner to it and it comes off; even the good-quality paint like Rustoleum.”
It also provides UV protection, important particularly for signs that face to the south. South-oriented signs reflect a greater amount of UV light than their counterparts. If the sign doesn’t fade as quickly as before then the federally mandated level of reflectivity doesn’t diminish as fast and the sign doesn’t need to be replaced as soon.
Kosciusko County is also trying to catch sign taggers in the act. But that’s especially difficult in the county with the fourth largest amount of area to cover. The sheriff’s department, however, has experimented with trail cameras which take pictures of any animal or person near enough to trip the sensor.
More of the cameras are on order and will soon be placed at locations around the county to deter tagging, theft and other criminal activity.