TWO SURPRISES greet first-time visitors to California’s Bay Area. The first is that Silicon Valley is not a specific place but a booming mini-region, with no sign advertising when one has arrived or left. The second is that despite its beauty and wealth, San Francisco is one of America’s grittiest cities. In some neighbourhoods people openly use drugs, defecate on the street and flagrantly steal. It feels as though law enforcement has turned a blind eye to many lesser offences.
While violent crime has been on the decline, some non-violent crimes have been rising like one of the city’s hills (see chart). Among the nation’s 20 largest cities, San Francisco now has the highest rate of property crime, which includes things like theft, shoplifting and vandalism, per inhabitant. In 2017 there were around 30,000 incidents of theft from cars, triple the number in 2010. “It feels like an epidemic because it is an epidemic,” says Leif Dautch, a young prosecutor who is running for district attorney in San Francisco. Some of those who have been victims complain that they are not taken seriously by the justice system. According to one report from 2016, charges are filed in a mere 2% of vehicle burglaries in San Francisco.
Several factors seem to explain the rise in San Francisco’s property crime. One is inequality, with the wealth of well-heeled tech executives and visitors in plain sight of those with little money and fewer opportunities. The number of unsheltered homeless people in the city rose by 48% between 2010 and 2017. Policing is another. The presence of police officers plays a strong role in deterrence, says Magnus Lofstrom of the Public Policy Institute of California, a think-tank. But since the financial crisis and ensuing budget cuts the number of officers per 100,000 residents in San Francisco has declined by around 10%.
Kombucha and kumbaya
Broader statewide pressures to reduce the number of those incarcerated may also be a factor. California has been undertaking a radical (and welcome) experiment with reforming its criminal justice system and reducing its vast prison population. In 2014 Californians passed Proposition 47, which downgraded a variety of “non-serious, non-violent” crimes to misdemeanours instead of felonies. This measure has had no impact on violent crime, but it has coincided with an uptick in property crime.
In San Francisco, local prosecutors are less inclined to bring charges when there is pressure not to incarcerate people for non-violent crimes, and police do not want to pursue cases that are unlikely to result in charges. Tolerant attitudes towards crime may also be a factor in explaining why arrests and prosecutions for property crime have declined. “The Bay Area has a culture that’s very tolerant of disorder. Culture is holding up general safety,” says Justin McCrary, who recently moved from the law school at the University of California, Berkeley to Columbia Law School.
A continued rise in property crime would test San Francisco’s progressive values. Many people have tolerant attitudes towards crime because they think it is committed by the homeless, mentally ill and those who are down on their luck. But in the case of vehicle break-ins, organised criminal gangs are behind 70-80% of incidents in San Francisco, according to the city government. In all likelihood the gangs are emboldened by the absence of prosecution. Business owners share stories of people walking through shops with calculators open on their phones, adding up the price of merchandise they plan to steal. With Proposition 47, California more than doubled the value of property required for shoplifting to count as a felony, to $950. Some thieves feel confident that so long as their haul falls below that threshold they will face few consequences.
Changes to existing laws could help with enforcement. For example, California currently has a loophole where a car break-in, with windows smashed and something stolen from inside, is treated as a misdemeanour, unless it can be proved that the car was definitely locked. Lawmakers are also considering tweaking a law to make it easier to prosecute people for serial theft from shops, including those who act in concert with others.
Cleaning up San Francisco will not be easy. Failure to do so will carry big consequences for the city and its residents. Tourists contribute around $9bn a year to San Francisco’s economy and are frequent victims of theft. At least one large conference has cancelled its plans to host a big gathering in San Francisco because its participants expressed concern about their safety, depriving the city of around $40m in spending. Would San Francisco ever embrace a zero-tolerance plan, as New York City did in the 1990s? It seems unlikely. But it also seems unlikely that San Francisco can keep going the way it is, either.