As the repository of large numbers of tourists toting large numbers of large bags, the hulking Westfield Mall serves as San Francisco's cathedral to retail. It turns out it also serves as a bastion of obtaining goods at an even lower cost.
That is, stealing them.
Anecdotal observations among San Francisco police personnel attribute around a quarter of the crime reports generated within the busy Southern Police District to incidents occurring in or near Westfield Mall. Hard data obtained from the city's Department of Emergency Management bolsters that claim. Between 2011 and 2013, 335,707 calls for assistance were made within the district. Of those, 77,655 — 23 percent — came from the Westfield or within a block of it.
Clearly, being mall cops is a major preoccupation of San Francisco's real cops — and a daily logistical grind for Southern District Capt. Mike Redmond. There are times, he says, when a pair of officers in a squad car will be assigned “just to handle those calls for service” at the Westfield. As a point of comparison, two cars might be devoted to both Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands. On busy days.
Working with the District Attorney to identify repeat offenders — which Redmond's officers do — may lower the number of incidents. Independent of that, Redmond has a plan to reduce the amount of time police officers put in at the mall. He's looking into the possibility of allowing store loss-prevention officers — read: security guards — to fill in all the paperwork and assume the responsibilities normally undertaken by police officers handling misdemeanor incidents, and shunt the cases directly to the DA for possible charging.
This is already under way, he says, in the Seattle area and Sacramento County.
In San Francisco, however, the notion of allowing mall cops to usurp regular police duties may not be an easy sell. “My gut reaction is, this is not a good idea,” says Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “You're giving loss-prevention officers the power to act as law-enforcement. That's just going too far.”
Presumably, newly empowered loss-prevention officers would require a lot of training. Good thing, notes Matt Gonzalez, Adachi's right-hand man at the Public Defender's Office. It's not unusual, he says, to find cases of loss-prevention officers detaining suspects before they even leave the store; detaining the innocent friends of suspected thieves; or to hear “allegations of inappropriate touching.” A plan to render unto mall cops the things that are real cops' could, in Gonzalez's view, “get a bit complicated.”
It appears Redmond and others hoping to free up overburdened cops may have to do some shopping around.