When San Francisco officials faced reporters outside the Palace of Fine Arts in August, promising to get tough on car break-ins, the moment seemed urgent.
Pressure was mounting on city leaders to alleviate property crime, yet up to that point, progress had been slow. Around the corner from the Palace of Fine Arts, glass quilted the sidewalk — debris from a rental minivan burglarized minutes before the news conference began. The year's worst week for auto burglaries — right around Thanksgiving — was on the horizon.
Then, suddenly, car burglary rates dropped. And dropped. Police began pouring resources at the problem, using a combination of bait cars, plainclothes officers and video surveillance. Officials waited with bated breath as fresh crime data rolled in each week. And the results were staggering.
Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 26, San Francisco logged 3,399 smash-and-grab reports, less than half of the 6,703 documented during the same timeframe in 2022. In the months before September, the number of reports in 2023 roughly matched the previous year.
These numbers marked a dramatic shift for a city that tends to see car burglaries spike late in the year. But to law enforcement, the timing made sense. Break-ins had plummeted just as the city launched an aggressive crackdown. The stark decrease coincided with a similar plunge in organized retail theft, following "blitz" operations by police.
Now comes the more vexing question: Can this trend be sustained?
District Attorney Brooke Jenkins drew a breath when asked whether auto burglaries might continue to go down, or at least flat-line, during a recent interview.
"That is my hope, of course," Jenkins said. She attributes the city's progress to a three-pronged strategy unveiled at the August news conference: Targeted police efforts to catch the most prolific burglars; vigorous prosecutions; hard-line messaging to scare away would-be thieves. Yet Jenkins emphasized the need to pivot if perpetrators change their behavior.
"We need ... anyone thinking of committing auto burglary in our city to be on notice," the district attorney said, citing a deterrence factor that builds up over time. A heavier police presence on the street and high-profile arrests help substantiate the rhetoric constantly hammered by city officials, that people who commit property crimes will be caught.
Mayor London Breed underscored that point in a statement to the Chronicle.
"We want San Francisco to be a safe city for residents and visitors, and we want people to know if they break into cars here, they will be arrested and prosecuted," she said. Breed praised the city for making progress, but signaled that the work was just beginning.
Police Lt. Scott Ryan subscribes to the theory that a small number of thieves are committing the bulk of San Francisco's auto burglaries. Apprehending these people is the key to lowering crime rates, Ryan said.
To make these arrests, police are expanding patrols and sticking bait cars at known hot spots for tourists and burglary crews. While Ryan was reticent to discuss locations and methods, a major November bust offers some clues. In that instance, police tracked down a car they had linked to a theft in Alamo Square. After arresting the driver, officers traced stolen goods to a man in the Mission District, who police said they had connected to a fencing scheme.
"We've collaborated with the District Attorney's Office in presenting those arrests and those cases to them," Ryan said. "Those people are being held responsible and are in custody as these cases move forward."
Prosecutors are filing detention motions to keep people in jail after they are charged, Jenkins said, hoping to debilitate organized theft rings by removing the key players. Given that crime networks operate throughout the region, Jenkins believes San Francisco's success might trickle down to other cities.
Criminologists aren't as quick to praise law enforcement for fluctuations in crime, pointing to a number of possible explanations. A sudden plunge could be a statistical quirk, said Cory Schnell, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. Social or economic factors could also play in, such as a change in tourist patterns or even in the driving habits of San Francisco residents.
"Because crime and crime trends are caused by so many different things that are very dynamic and simultaneous, you have to be very careful about causal attribution," said Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California Irvine. She pointed out that the abrupt decrease in crime may be a result from just one element of the crackdown, such as police arresting the most prodigious offenders.
Nonetheless, a tightly-orchestrated intervention by multiple city departments is a plausible reason for crime to go down, Schnell said.
"Those strategies are on their face reasonable to account for this decrease," he acknowledged, noting that researchers try to avoid drawing conclusions until they have rigorously evaluated a particular enforcement program.
Still, Schnell understands why the San Francisco Police Department and District Attorney would want to take credit for a decline in crime.
"Because when things aren't going well," he said, "they definitely take the blame."
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