Indicating that it is going to take a hard line against local vandalism, the Ann Arbor City Council passed an anti-graffiti ordinance last week. But the surprising thing about this ordinance is that it doesn’t target those who spray paint buildings with graffiti — instead it punishes the owners of those buildings. This new ordinance is an ill-conceived method of dealing with city crime — punishing property owners is an unfair tactic that does nothing to confront the real culprits, graffiti artists. Graffiti isn’t even a major problem for the city, and this policy is an unnecessary approach to dealing with it.

At its meeting on Jan. 19, the City Council passed an anti-graffiti ordinance that requires property owners to clean up the graffiti on their property or risk being charged a fee. The ordinance, which will take effect in 90 days, gives property owners a time limit for removing the graffiti — seven days if the removal notice is given to them directly and nine days if the notice is mailed. The city of Ann Arbor will then remove the graffiti if the property owner does not comply and the owner will be charged the bill for the removal service. This ordinance is a revision to an earlier draft, which included a stricter timeframe and a heftier fine. In the original proposal, property owners would have been given two to four days to clean the graffiti or risk paying a fine of up to $500.

Proponents of the policy argue that property owners should be forced to clean up graffiti because it detracts from the city’s image and encourages more painting on surrounding buildings. By mandating quick cleanups for graffiti, the ordinance aims to beautify the city while eradicating vandalism.

These may be admirable goals, but it just isn’t clear that this law is necessary, given that graffiti just doesn’t really seem to be a major problem facing the city. After all, graffiti simply isn’t widespread in Ann Arbor. But even if local occurrences of graffiti truly did constitute an epidemic, this plan for dealing with it is deeply flawed.

Under the new policy, property owners are expected to spend their money, time and effort cleaning up an act of vandalism that was not their fault in the first place. Punishing property owners isn’t the right way to fight graffiti. And it’s unfair. Property owners are the victims, and they shouldn’t be held responsible for these crimes. There may be good reasons for why property owners wouldn’t decide to clean up the graffiti on their own — they could be on vacation, unable to afford it or simply unwilling to clean it up. The city hasn’t justified requiring the owners to pay for the damage done to their buildings.

If the council is so concerned about graffiti in Ann Arbor, it should construct a policy that actually addresses the problem. Punishing the victims of graffiti does not deter future crime. City Council should find a way to go after the perpetrators, not the victims, if it wants to decrease graffiti.

Ultimately, the city’s anti-graffiti ordinance is both misguided and unnecessary. Even if graffiti was a widespread problem, the people who commit acts of vandalism are the ones who should be held responsible for it. By punishing victims, the city is only adding insult to injury and assigning blame to the wrong party. This ordinance should be replaced with a more reasonable policy that respects the rights and interests of the city’s property owners and actually takes a meaningful stand against graffiti.

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