Why San Francisco is the car break-in capital: Low-risk, high reward

In case you’ve somehow missed all the news coming out of San Francisco for the past several years, the city has the highest rate of property crime in the country. The SF Chronicle published a story today asking the obvious question: “Why is it so bad here — and not elsewhere?” The answer the article comes to is not entirely satisfying but it does make some amount of sense. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first the article does admit there’s a possibility Prop 47 plays a role.

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Lobbyists for retailers and some politicians have blamed Proposition 47, a 2014 law that mandated prosecutors charge thefts of under $950 as misdemeanors rather than felonies. While detractors of the law sometimes exaggerate Prop. 47’s effect on overall crime, with break-ins, at least, they’ve got a point. Researchers at the PPIC, including Lofstrom, found a link between Prop. 47 and a 9% statewide upswing in thefts, driven by auto burglaries, from 2014-16.

But car break-in rates began increasing in 2011, three years before Prop. 47 passed. Plus, the reform was statewide, and other cities didn’t see their break-in rates rise to anywhere near this degree.

So Prop 47 probably contributes to the problem but it can’t explain it completely. Another possibility the authors consider is George Gascon who took over as DA in San Francisco in 2011, the same year the break-ins began to spike. Frankly, I think they’re on to something there but the article argues that, based on social science, the likelihood of arrest is a bigger deterrent than prosecution. So what is the likelihood of arrest for these crimes? It’s vanishingly small:

In 2011, the earliest year with complete data available, city police made arrests in about 2% of reported car break-ins. Today, that figure is under 1%…

Auto burglary is a notoriously difficult crime for cops to respond to, said Mike Sena, executive director of Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program. It takes a practiced person under a minute to break a window, steal stuff and drive away. People usually don’t leave fingerprints, and they often switch out license plates on their getaway cars, which may themselves be stolen. And police don’t prioritize break-ins the way they do violent crimes.

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Furthermore, the decline in arrests (from 2% to 1%) may not have been about a lack of police interest in the cases. On the contrary, it’s likely the thieves just got better at stealing.

Steve Tull remembers when things changed. The former Oakland police captain was assigned to the Fruitvale area around 2011-12 when, he said, break-in rates spiraled “literally out of control.” He said officials “were looking at all types of possible responses: surveillance, bait cars, special operations. We were hitting up informants trying to figure out what was going on.”

Gradually, Tull and his colleagues learned: Auto burglars had become far more effective, capable of smashing dozens of windows a day and quickly selling goods at a premium. Tull said that the rise of e-commerce outlets like eBay and Amazon gave organized theft rings a place to discreetly sell stolen goods. And GPS-, hotspot- and Bluetooth-enabled devices like smartphones allowed them to hunt for electronic valuables that give off signals from inside cars.

At around the same time, smart phones and tablets became ubiquitous. That meant that thieves suddenly had a much better chance of finding a small, resalable item worth a lot of money. It was probably this combination of lower risk (because thieves were getting faster) and higher reward (because everyone suddenly had high end electronics) that drove the increase. Also, the kids robbing the cars could post videos on social media and become notorious. That led to other people trying it.

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All of this make sense and yet it doesn’t really explain why the problem is worse in San Francisco than it is in, say, Los Angeles. LA also has lots of cars. so why aren’t the thieves just as active in LA? Is it because there are more police? More traffic? Is it because SF residents tend to be wealthier? Because there are more tourists?

There must be something unique about SF that makes it the break-in capital and I’m still not sure what that is.

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