The high cost of low-level crime in the City by the Bay
City Journal, May 19, 2019
By Erica Sandberg
San Francisco is the nation’s leader in property crime. Burglary, larceny, shoplifting, and vandalism are included under this ugly umbrella. The rate of car break-ins is particularly striking: in 2017 over 30,000 reports were filed, and the current average is 51 per day. Other low-level offenses, including drug dealing, street harassment, encampments, indecent exposure, public intoxication, simple assault, and disorderly conduct are also rampant.
Many in law enforcement blame the crime wave on Proposition 47, which in 2014 downgraded possession of illegal narcotics for personal use and theft of anything under $950 in value from felonies to misdemeanors. Anti-incarceration advocates disagree with that argument, but theft is indisputably booming, and narcotics activity is exploding on sidewalks, parks, and playgrounds. When compounded with other troubles for which the city is now infamous (human feces, filth, and homelessness, which is up 17 percent since 2017), San Franciscans find themselves surrounded by squalor and disorder.
“A lot of people are ready to leave because the crimes are causing depression,” says Susan Dyer Reynolds, editor-in-chief of the Marina Times, an independent community newspaper. “Navigation centers” for the homeless, says Reynolds, “are not sober facilities, and people steal and break into cars to feed their habits. Crime will go up. We know this.”
Property and other supposedly low-level crimes are intensifying the destruction of the retail market. Landmark Mission District stores are shuttering, citing theft and lack of security. In April, CVS closed two pharmacies that had been ravaged by constant shoplifting. Mom-and-pop businesses, wracked by so-called minor losses, find it impossible to survive. Empty storefronts dot once-vibrant neighborhoods.
“Property and low-level crimes shrink the space for everyday people and enlarge them for the people committing them,” says Nancy Tung, a criminal prosecutor for two decades, who is running for district attorney in the 2019 election. “If we continue down this path, we will see more people leave San Francisco.” Tung will face a competitive field of opponents, including Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin, a socialist and the son of two convicted Weather Underground murderers, who wants to reduce criminal sentences. Keeping people out of jail is the new social-justice battle; in March, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that San Francisco’s bail policy violates the rights of poor defendants and brings no public benefit.
Meantime, the poor bear the brunt of low-level and property crimes. “In the Tenderloin we have vulnerable populations—people of color, the most children, the second-highest concentration of elders, and they are held hostage by drug dealers and theft, and the city tells them these crimes are not that bad,” says Tung. “We are failing to protect them. The police do a good job, because the criminals are caught, only to be released back on the streets over and over.”
David Young is board president of his building, located in the South of Market neighborhood. In a recent six-month period, four windows were smashed by vandals, and replacement costs are huge. “The everyday wear and tear on your psyche gets to you,” says Young. “When we walk out the door, we know that there is a 100 percent chance we’ll see someone on drugs, in various states of undress, blood on sidewalks, and discarded sharps. These are crimes no one in city hall seems to care about. When you say something about it, you’re called a fascist.”
Until recently, Young says, San Francisco was an amazing place to live. “Now people look at the city as an abscess,” he says. “The cost of housing compared to the quality of life is way off. Everyone is talking about it. Crime has been ignored for so long, and it’s gotten so huge. Serial repeat offenders have no problem making bail, especially drug dealers, as they see it as the cost of doing business.”
Some citizens are attempting to fight back. Frank Noto cofounded Stop Crime: Neighborhood for Criminal Justice Accountability after an onslaught of break-ins. Neighbors had come together for an art project, which drew crowds—but also crime rings. First tourists’ cars were hit, then residents’ cars, and then homes. So the group started a court-watch program. They attended hearings and observed decisions, and they noted a casual judicial approach to these cases. Their presence didn’t go unnoticed. Judges know that they’re being scrutinized; one actually recused himself. “We have to take a stand,” says Noto. “We talked to one guy, an electrician, who’s been burglarized six times, and all of his tools have been stolen. All we want is for the DA and judges to take this seriously.”
As for the San Francisco Police, they’re doing their best. “It looks like hell here, but we are getting those people,” says San Francisco Police Department Captain Carl Fabbri, who helms the Tenderloin police station. “In our district, robberies are down 17 percent, burglaries are down 28 percent, and auto break-ins are down 26 percent. These results don’t just happen. We’re getting the people off the streets even for two days. When they’re in jail, we see an impact.”
The community benefits when criminals are incapacitated by being locked up, but Fabbri, like Tung and Noto, thinks that low-level criminals are released too quickly. “We could be keeping them and be giving services while they’re in jail,” says Fabbri. “It could really be effective. We need changes in the law and policies, to amend Proposition 47 and strengthen quality-of-life laws.” Bail, too, should remain in place. “There is so much support of the police here, more than you’d think,” says Fabbri. “Social media has turned the tide. If you follow what we’re doing, you can see the difference we are making.”
San Francisco’s lure persists. “There are more people from different parts of the world coming here to build a life all the time,” says Young. “It’s unquestionably a great place for opportunity, and culturally what we have is incredible. But we’re not solving our problems when we pretend low-level crimes aren’t important.” Committed residents are digging in, but if the city doesn’t start changing its approach, how long will they last?