Authorities Hustle to Curb S.F.’s Smash and Grab Epidemic

In 2017, there were 30,000 car break-ins citywide. SFPD and the District Attorney’s Office are frantically working to bust the crime rings. But will any of their new tactics actually work?

Ben and Ivana parked their rental car along Kezar Drive on a November afternoon, two days before Thanksgiving. The pair had just flown in from Australia to introduce their 8-month-old daughter, Georgia, to family in Walnut Creek. The trip into San Francisco was a spur-of-the-moment decision, and by the time they made it across the Bay Bridge, it was just starting to get dark. They packed up the baby in her stroller and walked around the Rose Garden for an hour. When they returned to their vehicle, the passenger side window was shattered.

It appeared that whoever had started the break-in — which was, notably, only a little more than 100 feet from Park District Police Station — had been interrupted. Nothing was taken, but Ben had to kick out the shattered glass and jerry-rig a baby blanket over the gaping hole in order to drive his family all the way back to SFO to replace the car.

It was an inconvenience, and left a bad taste in their mouths about the city. But in the end, they lost nothing but time.

Most tourists who park their rental cars on San Francisco streets aren’t as lucky. In 2017, 30,000 car break-ins were reported to authorities. Victims lost suitcases, passports, musical instruments, guns, laptops, and professional ice skating gear. It’s a problem that’s plagued the city for decades, but it’s getting worse: Last year’s numbers were a 24 percent increase over 2016. And everyone — from the District Attorney’s office to the San Francisco Police Department to city supervisors — has a plan to fix it. But will any of them work?

On the frontlines of this battle are the police, but their arrest history is not encouraging. Of the approximately 30,000 car break-ins that happened in 2017, only 481 resulted in arrests.

And while Chief Bill Scott attempts to curb the rampant property crime, the department has undergone a number of shuffles. In September, Scott announced the dissolution of the Patrol Bureau Task Force, in order to redistribute officers to footbeat patrols at each neighborhood station. The theory was that more visibility would stop theft.

“We’ve had a problem with burglaries from vehicles in Twin Peaks, to the tune of about 44 per month,” Scott said at the time. “We enhanced our deployment gravely in that area. We had one for the entire month — July 17 to Aug. 16. One car burglary. That highlights how important it is to have officers on the street.”

All told, around 100 more police officers were assigned to foot patrols. And while the seldom-used tactic of community-based policing is necessary in San Francisco, the elimination of the Patrol Bureau Task Force is questionable. During its two-year tenure, officers made 228 arrests, the majority of which were related to car break-ins. In particular, the Task Force busted several groups who’d become car break-in professionals, taking entire small rings off the street.

Eliminating those crime rings, as opposed to just jailing the individuals caught doing the work, may be key to making headway with the car break-in epidemic. A report released by the Civil Grand Jury in 2016 stated that “the vast majority of offenses are the work of organized career criminals comprising less than 20 percent of the pool of offenders. Many are gang members. Some are armed and violent. Most have prior felony convictions. They own cars or are adept at stealing them to commit crimes.”

After the foot-beat patrol decision in September, SFPD changed course in January, at the same time the shocking 2017 data was released. The next plan was to create dedicated teams of officers at each neighborhood police station to focus on property crimes like auto burglaries — a move oddly reminiscent of the Task Force of yore.

To be fair, pressure on SFPD has come from all directions — not least from politicians — so it’s small wonder the department is scrambling for solutions. In January, Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Norman Yee called for SFPD to step up their game. And new Supervisor Catherine Stefani has taken on the issue as her first official cause, with the call for a hearing that would take an extensive look at what’s being done to quell what she said are an average of 85 thefts from vehicles each day.

“Car break-ins should not be a toll you pay to live in San Francisco,” she said at a Board of Supervisors meeting Feb. 6. “It is not a part of city living. I refuse to let this be the status quo in our beautiful city.”

The hearing — which is loosely scheduled for March 28 in the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee  — has the potential to give government officials another peek into the numbers, but with so many changes taking place in just the last few months, the results may be inconclusive.

And even if police did manage to arrest people in more than 1.6 percent of the city’s car break-ins, they might be back out on the street in a matter of days — a fact that police have bemoaned for years, saying that the courts not doing enough to keep thieves behind bars.

District Attorney George Gascón addressed these concerns at a press event in February, announcing to the media that he was going to ask for $1 million in city funds to create his own Auto Burglary Task Force. Made up of analysts, investigators, paralegals, and prosecutors, the group would work closely with police to track patterns and identify serial offenders.

“For the past three years, my office has dedicated a single prosecutor to help with the auto burglary problem in our city,” Gascón said. “We learned that it’s essential to this effort to have new data, continuity, and consistency. We also learned that community input is absolutely essential to doing this work well.”

With the latter in mind, Gascón has launched a “digital tip line,” where San Franciscans can submit tips of suspects, getaway vehicles, and other information that could be pertinent to investigations. In addition, people with personal security cameras on the front of their homes or businesses can sign up to share that footage with the DA’s office.

“It is crucial for a good prosecution to have good evidence,” he said.

But tracking the getaway cars is in itself a tricky process. “The auto burglary problem in our city is primarily driven by organized crime,” said Gascón. “They’re often using stolen vehicles, or vehicles with stolen license plates, or rental cars, in order to make a quick getaway. Then that property immediately transfers into another location, and that those location goes into a fencing operation … That property gets quickly sent to other countries.”

To his credit, Gascón didn’t blame the police for the lack of arrests. “I do believe the police are trying really hard,” he said diplomatically.

SFPD has one month to prepare for Stefani’s hearing, and it’s a tight turnaround. The frantic efforts from all departments to address the epidemic may work eventually — but it’s not going to be quick. As Gascón puts it, “patience, tenacity, and time” are needed to see if these new tactics make any difference at all.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor. |  @TheBestNuala

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