The Mean Streets Of San Francisco Crime: Perception or Reality?


The official word is that the videos of San Francisco shoplifters are not accurate representations of crime in the city. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that Police Chief Bill Scott and Mayor London Breed have “sought to tamp down growing perceptions – fueled in part by the viral videos – that San Francisco is a chaotic, lawless city. They said statistics show crime rates similar to pre-pandemic levels.”

In June, the Chronicle asked if there has “actually been a surge in shoplifting in San Francisco?” and opened the city’s books to find out. The conclusion:

“Data from the San Francisco Police Department suggests these reports may be overblown. According to the data, overall shoplifting incidents reported to the police are below their levels before the start of the pandemic. And before that, shoplifting rates had been decreasing more or less steadily since the 1980s.”

“Shoplifting incidents reported” is a pivotal phrase. Several paragraphs later, reporter Susie Nelson says that “in a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, police officers said that shoplifters are getting more brazen, and that shoplifting incidents are likely underreported.”

This is consistent with the Chronicle’s reporting a month earlier.

By closing 17 of its stores in the city because it can no longer sustain the losses due to theft, Walgreens, victimized in one of the viral videos, supports the argument that shoplifting incidents are being underreported.

But contrarians, always vital to public discourse, suggest the closures are merely a part of the chain’s plan to close 200 stores to trim its U.S. footprint, and it’s using shoplifting as a convenient explanation. Maybe so. But that doesn’t explain why Target is closing stores in San Francisco four hours early explicitly to avoid shoplifting losses.

So what’s the truth? Residents are apparently seeing a world that doesn’t match up with the one officials want the public to see.

“No one really believes” that crime isn’t on the rise, says San Francisco resident Erica Sandberg. “Even the people who are saying” that the images exaggerate the reality “don’t believe it.”

Sandberg has also seen what happens when victims realize that contacting authorities is of little use. After witnessing a shoplifting incident in which the thief also tried to steal a bicycle belonging to a customer filling a prescription, store employees told her, “we don’t bother to call” law enforcement. Apparently some merchants are in the habit of simply saying “what’s the use?” and do their best to return to their usual business routines.

Maybe this is to be expected when law enforcement’s “their hands are tied” by the provisions of Proposition 47, which says that a shoplifter has to have stolen more than $950 in merchandise to be charged with a felony. Otherwise, the offense is a misdemeanor, which carries much lighter penalties and is less of a deterrent.

While San Franciscans might understand that there is only so much street cops can do, they’re frustrated by what they see as a campaign from higher up that’s essentially saying, “move along, there’s nothing to see here.”

“When officials say that it’s just perception, they have lost the confidence and respect of the citizens,” Sandberg said. “It’s gone.”

Gone like so much purloined merchandise.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top