San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 2, 2020
By Evan Sernoffsky
San Francisco saw 41 killings in 2019, the lowest number of homicides in 56 years, and part of an overall decline in the violent crime and shootings that plagued the city just over a decade ago.
The remarkable recent downturn in violent crime, city officials said, is the result of a strategy by law enforcement and community groups to focus resources on crime-challenged neighborhoods to stem bloodshed.
“I’m really proud of the work the city has done to invest in violence prevention programs,” Mayor London Breed told The Chronicle. “It is a collaborative approach toward keeping the numbers down and hopefully getting to a better place over time.”
The number of killings in 2019 was down 11% from 2018, when the city had 46 homicides. That’s a contrast with some of the city’s most troubling times, when killings went largely unsolved and justice was often handled on the streets.
In 1977, the city recorded 142 killings. In 1993, there were 129 slayings and as recently as 2007 there were 100. Things turned around in the past decade, and San Francisco twice recorded a low of 45 killings — in 2014 and 2009 — before last year’s dip.
Before the previous decade, San Francisco hadn’t had a homicide count in the 40s since the 1960s, according to data from the Police Department, state Department of Justice and Chronicle reports. The last time the number of homicides was as low as 2019’s count was in 1963, when the city had 100,000 fewer residents.
San Francisco also saw a 6% drop in shootings and an 8% overall drop in violent crime from the previous year, which included declines in every major category of violence, including assaults, rapes and robberies.
“One homicide is one too many, but the fact that we’re at a 55-year low, we’re pleased,” said Deputy Chief David Lazar, who heads investigations in the Police Department. “We have work to do, and we have to continue to do the work we did this year in 2020.”
The city, however, still has the highest property crime rate in the country, driven mostly by the high number of auto burglaries that have overwhelmed residents and visitors. San Francisco, though, saw a 3% decline in vehicle break-ins in 2019 compared with the previous year, according to the latest police statistics.
The city’s decadelong drop in violent crime follows a national trend of declining violence in major cities. Violent crime fell 9% nationally over the past decade, but stalled in 2015 and 2016 before another dip over the last three years, according to the latest FBI statistics.
San Francisco’s success with violent crime, the mayor said, should be credited to engaged community groups and residents along with the San Francisco Police Department.
The department last year recorded a 71% homicide clearance rate, which divides the overall number of cases solved with the number of killings that year. Back in the 1990s, the city had a clearance rate in the 20s, the lowest percentage of any major city in the country.
“People want closure and they want accountability,” Breed said. “We don’t want retaliation. That’s important to preventing further things from happening in the first place.”
For Breed, stemming violent crime has been her life’s work. She was born and raised in public housing in the city’s Western Addition, where violent crime was rampant, particularly among the neighborhood’s young African American men, she said.
She recalled growing up hearing drive-by shootings and attending the funerals of classmates in high school.
“I wanted to do something about changing it,” she said, describing her ascension from neighborhood advocate to supervisor to mayor. “There were a lot of people we were losing, so I think there was an outcry from the community for change.”
Part of the effort by the mayor’s office has been holding meetings with a violence reduction team after every homicide. The group is composed of police, community stakeholders and others who work to diffuse situations before they escalate.
The city’s Street Violence Intervention Team members are among the first to respond when someone gets killed, and the program is credited by police and city leaders as a critical component of driving down violence.
Team members — whose life stories often involve being caught up in the criminal justice system — counsel neighborhood residents and try to tamp down any potential retribution killings.
But even before violence breaks out, they work to build relationships with young people and families in the city’s most challenged communities such as the Western Addition, Bayview-Hunters Point, Mission and Sunnydale.
“It takes a village and that’s what we believe,” said Arturo Carrillo, the program’s director. “It’s great to see a kid that’s benefited from our work — someone who’s gotten out and cut loose the lifestyle and is now working a full-time job and making good money.”
Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who quit in October to run for the same job in Los Angeles, pointed to his work as top prosecutor and police chief in driving down violence. As district attorney, he established the Crime Strategies Unit, a team of prosecutors, analysts and investigators who use data-driven approaches to address chronic crime.
“In the case of San Francisco, you have people committing more than one homicide and taking them out of circulation is important,” he said.