Am I allowed to call it shocking when it’s been going on literally for years? This isn’t even the first video we’ve posted of a thief robbing a San Francisco Walgreens in full view of someone recording with a smartphone.
In fact, am I even allowed to call this shoplifting? “Shoplifting” denotes an intent to conceal the theft by sneaking out of the store with the goods. This is robbery, straight up.
Witness a total breakdown in elementary law and order right before your eyes.
— Lyanne Melendez (@LyanneMelendez) June 14, 2021
Two obvious questions. Why didn’t the security guard do more to intervene? The answer, per this NYT piece from a few weeks ago, is that it’s too dangerous. “We’ve had incidents where our security officers are assaulted on a pretty regular basis in San Francisco,” said the head of retail crime for CVS in San Francisco to the Times’s reporter, who remembers watching people shoplift right out in the open in the city as far back as 2016. Even if a security guard were feeling brave and inclined to intervene, retailers who try to stop a theft in progress … can be sued.
Not every shoplifter is a lone wolf either. Last October, John wrote about the plague of theft in San Fran convenience stores and marveled at the sheer scale of goods recovered after a theft ring was busted in the Bay Area. Cops found $8 million in stolen merchandise, most of it taken from CVS. Evidently the ringleaders are paying thieves $1 or $2 for each item stolen and then selling the goods on the black market to illicit wholesalers. In some cases a group of thieves have rushed into a store and pulled off a coordinated “mass grab and dash,” multiplying the amount of goods stolen. What’s going on in San Francisco, in other words, isn’t so much “shoplifting” as organized crime, albeit of a relatively petty variety.
Which brings us to the other question. Why San Francisco? Critics have pointed to a 2014 ballot measure that essentially decriminalized theft of less than $950 worth of goods by making it a misdemeanor, allowing thieves to get off with a wrist slap. But that was a state law and San Fran appears to have a unique problem with shoplifting. Walgreens has closed 17 stores there in the past five years due to rampant theft. Back in May, the company’s VP for California retail operations said at a hearing that theft in their remaining SF stores is four times the average than it is in the rest of America and that it spends 35 times more on security guards in the city than it does elsewhere. The Times asked a city supervisor why that is. What’s unique about the Bay Area that encourages this behavior relative to, say, Sacramento or Los Angeles?
It’s the local culture of impunity, he said frankly:
He talked about what he called a laissez-faire attitude in San Francisco.
“It has become part of the landscape,” he said of thefts. “People say, ‘Oh, well, that just happens.’”
Thieves “are obviously choosing locales based on what the consequences are,” Safaí said. “If there are no consequences for their actions, then you invite the behavior. Over and over.”
Critics have pointed the finger at Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s far-left district attorney. (He’s the son of Weather Underground member Kathy Boudin and was raised by fellow Weathermen Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn.) Boudin has pointed the finger at the San Francisco police in turn, complaining about their low case clearance rate. I can’t prosecute someone unless they’ve been arrested, Boudin has said.
Maybe the problem is simpler. A very progressive city is destined not to care much about derelicts ripping off major corporate chains. Cynthia Nixon, who primaried Andrew Cuomo from the left in New York a few years ago, doubtless spoke for many with this tweet a few weeks back:
The CVS on my corner has started locking up basic items like clothing detergent.
As so many families can’t make ends meet right now, I can’t imagine thinking that the way to solve the problem of people stealing basic necessities out of desperation is to prosecute them. https://t.co/5RsdMTDWqa
— Cynthia Nixon (@CynthiaNixon) May 22, 2021
If you think Nixon was out on a limb, take five minutes and scroll through the Twitter replies to the shoplifting video posted above. You’ll find a variety of excuses from “Doesn’t Walgreens have insurance?” to “What do you want the security guard to do, shoot him?” to “It’s only shampoo” to “The Bay Area is an expensive place to live, you know.” Evidently rampant, out-in-the-open theft is an unsolvable problem — maybe one that shouldn’t be solved — despite the fact that the rest of America’s cities have nonetheless somehow managed to avoid it. Upon watching the clip, a friend peered into the future and emailed me to say, “Cue the whining about out-of-control insurance rates, and companies refusing to open stores in inner cities in about 2-3 years.”
The GOP could spend a decade brainstorming and never come up with a better campaign ad. “Defund the police” indeed.