A cloud of white dust particles encircled a pickup truck and trailer Monday morning at West Orchard Avenue and 11th Street. Beneath the dust emerged Hermiston Code Enforcement Officer Kelly Parsons, who knelt down, aiming the nozzle of a sodablaster at a spray-painted wall. His face covered by a protective particle mask and headphones on his ears, Parsons said he’s making a difference by fighting graffiti, one fence and one wall at a time. Even if his ammunition is baking soda.
Parsons, a former Walla Walla Police crime prevention officer, spent Monday morning applying the blaster to several areas recently tagged, including a store and a car wash. A year after acquiring the machine through a local donation, Parsons is glad to have it.
“This has been a nice tool to have,” he said.
Although the department also uses chemical remover to take off graffiti tags, Parsons said he likes the sodablaster best, including that it is easy on the environment.
“This is the best way we’ve found,” he said.
The equipment is housed inside a 16-foot trailer purchased by grants, which holds a diesel air compressor. Parsons moved to another wall at the car wash, and started up the compressor inside the trailer. The compressor builds air that travels through a cooling fan and into a water separator. The devices power the sodablaster, which looks like a firearm. But while the of this device ammunition isn’t lethal, it is powerful on contact.
Parsons cannot say the level of pressure the blaster emits baking soda, but said, “I know it’s enough to take your skin off.”
The baking soda disintegrates the a majority of the spray paint leaving minimal residue behind. But Parsons works to disguise the area tagged so no one will attempt to tag over it. The material is less aggressive than sand or walnut shells, used by other departments.
In an effort to build bridges, Acting Police Chief Darryl Johnson said other agencies can request department assistance with the device.
“We are open to assisting these agencies,” said Johnson, who is filling in for Police Chief Jason Edmiston this week. “We are open to looking at providing the assistance as graffiti affects all of our cities and our livability when this graffiti detracts from the beauty of the area.”
The machine does not ensure an end to tagging as a whole, according to Parsons. He added that graffiti, if allowed to fester on city and private property, can breed more violent criminal activity.
“What it does assure is we’re not going to tolerate it,” he said. “Hermiston — It’s a nice place, and I’ll be doggoned if I see it run into the ground by a bunch of guys who have nothing better to do.”
Parsons spends 16 hours a month on average applying the machine and said graffiti abatement is 70 percent of code enforcement in Hermiston. He said he doesn’t have a problem with helping those whose businesses or residences are tagged.
“The best way for us to fight this stuff is for us to do what we’ve been doing,” he said.
And the quicker action is taken to remove the tags, the better.
“If we did not have a graffiti removal policy and take active steps to remove it we would likely have graffiti on every street corner and increased gang activity,” Johnson said.
It comes down to territory, according to Parsons.
“We’ve got a group that’s trying to identify themselves and potentially mark what their territory is,” he said. “Basically what we’re telling them is, ‘this isn’t yours, this is ours.’”