INDEPENDENCE -- There has been a significant rise in graffiti vandalism within the city since August, police said.
Independence Police Department officials also said the tags are gang-related and believe it's a sign of a quiet resurgence in local gang activity that has been sporadic for the past several years.
"It's kind of disturbing," said Sgt. Rick Igou. "The number and volume of the cases have increased ... we haven't had that in a while."
Officers have investigated 19 separate incidents involving graffiti on signs, fences and alleys since late last month. Vandals also sprayed walls at Henry Hill Elementary School and the nearby outbuilding for the YMCA pool.
"It had been unusually quiet until about three weeks ago," said Tino Banuelos, one of two Independence officers charged with monitoring juvenile crimes.
"There would be two- and three day-spurts where we would see four or five areas tagged around town."
The department recorded 30 graffiti cases as of Sept. 6. That doesn't count incidents not reported to police. There were four in 2004 and 13 in 2005.
Only one arrest has been made in association with graffiti in 2006.
Investigating vandalism is challenging, Igou said. The graffiti is photographed, then added to a catalogue of graffiti previously found in the city.
Igou said the hope is that officers will find a pattern or signature which would help identify a suspect.
But chances are the crime will go unsolved unless a perpetrator is caught in the act or turned in by a friend. Businesses' security cameras are seldom mounted in alleys or other hidden areas where the crimes typically happen, Igou said.
"Most of the time, this is taking place in the middle of the night," Igou said. "What we need is people calling us.
"If they see somebody in the process of marking a building or know who did it ... we're asking that they do their civic duty and call."
People with vandalized properties can do their part by covering it over as quickly as possible. One gang tag usually serves as invitation for a rival to write over it, police said.
Clint Cole, manager of Waremart, said the exterior walls of his store have been repainted because of graffiti. And inside, his employees are often forced to spend at least an hour a day scrubbing felt-pen gang markings from bathroom walls and stalls.
"It's frustrating," said Carol Cable, one of the owners of Central Plaza. The alley behind his business complex has been a frequent target for graffiti in the past.
"Anybody who has ever been hit feels the same ... whether it's a house or a fence, it seems like a useless expense to go in and repaint the darn thing."
There has been more gang activity within local schools, Banuelos said. Much of that comes in the form of threats, intimidation by numbers, method of dress and posturing.
At least three separate gangs have been identified in Independence, with about 20 members in the school system.
Department officials said groups feed off publicity. For that reason they decline to name any particular gang. But they have said the local groups are affiliated with gangs in Salem and other cities in the mid-Willamette Valley.
Most members are in their teens, with some as young as 12 being initiated.
"You hear the term 'wannabe' but you never want to call them that," Roger Lloyd, a school resource officer said. "That makes them want to prove they're in a gang and do worse stuff."
If there's a positive to be found in the current problem, it's that is has been mostly free of violence, Banuelos said.
"We had expected more large group fights this summer, which have happened in the past," he said. "But everybody seemed pretty well-behaved over the summer.
"Hopefully, it stays that way."
Independence Police Department encourages residents whose properties have been vandalized to paint over or remove the graffiti as quickly as possible and to report the incident. For more information: 503-838-1214.