An SF Board of Supervisors committee broke down the car break-in problem Thursday, hoping to craft legislation to lower the approximate 23,000 auto burglaries SF sees every year — only about 1% of which result in arrests.
It’s a sign of the times that national reporters do stories about SF crime, only to have their own cars broken into in the process. And when the SFPD held an August press conference at the Palace of Fine Arts to announce they would use “bait cars” to catch thieves, a tourist had their car broken into just as the press conference was starting there.
KTVU noted Thursday morning that Supervisor Dean Preston was calling a hearing on car break-ins. That hearing took place Thursday morning at the SF Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee, and SFist tuned in to hear about the car break-in statistics, and what (if anything) lawmakers and city departments can do to stop it.
As seen above, we had a staggering 22,700 reported car break-ins last year, according to SFPD statistics. That’s bad, but not nearly as bad as 2017! And current 2023 data, analyzing on January to September compared to that same period over the last few years, shows break-ins are slightly down from 2022, but higher than they were at this point in 2021.
In terms of the burglars’ tactics, the Chronicle notes that one public commenter Thursday pointed out how thieves spot tourists’ vehicles: by looking for cars that don’t curb their wheels on hills. Alamo Square resident Dave Jordan said the burglars “look down the aisle, they see no wheels curbed – boom, that’s a car I’m going to go after.”
SFPD Field Operations Bureau commander Derrick Jackson elaborated further on car break-in tactics, with some surprising revelations. “Some of these include multiple thieves per vehicle,” Jackson told the committee. “The criminal element operates predominantly during the daylight hours. They also target tourist areas. Suspects usually utilize countersurveillance and attempts to identify undercover police operations.”
Other revelations were less surprising. “Following the break-ins, the suspects usually flee at a high rate of speed, with disregard for public safety,” Jackson said.
One such example came this week in a viral video in which several young men, tourists from the East Coast and Europe traveling together in camper vans, tried to stop burglars at Fort Mason by jumping onto their car — with two of them getting injured after the car sped off. They said their van was broken into while they were sitting next to it, and their cash and passports were stolen.
Smash and Grab victims in #SanFrancisco try to stop thieves by jumping on getaway car. One still seen clinging on as the other falls. The tourists were visiting from Russia & Kazakhstan. Two of their travel vans were hit in Fort Mason parking lot. pic.twitter.com/84Nsdbpis6— Dan Thorn (@DanThorn_) September 21, 2023
We may not think of car break-ins as violent crime, but it is getting more violent with the more frequent use of guns. SFPD lieutenant Stephen Jonas said that when they find guns among car burglars, “it’s about 90% handguns, almost all them are with extended magazines, most of them are either ghost guns or they are stolen.”
But the bombshell revelation was that SFPD has an arrest rate (or “clearance rate”) of only 1-2% in reported car break-in cases. Supervisor Dean Preston was not shy in saying, “That strikes me as a very low clearance rate for this kind of crime.”
Supervisor Catherine Stefani countered that thieves are piling up new tactics, like bluetooth monitors to locate electronics and manipulate locks. “The career criminals, the repeat offenders who do this over and over again, are getting better and better and better at it,” she said Thursday. “Officers are not allowed to engage in high-speed pursuits for stolen goods, it’s not allowed by the police commission, they're just not allowed to do it. There’s an explanation as to why these clearance rates are so low.”
And as we've discussed for years, popular tourist spots are car break-in hot spots. “We are, what, 600 police officers short?” Stefani asked. “If we had enough officers to deploy to these areas 24/7, I think these statistics would be a lot different.”
Lieutenant Jonas argued that the 1-2% arrest rate may also be catching the suspects who are guilty of a much, much higher percentage of the break-ins.
“It’s part of my experience that one suspect, in a day, could be responsible for several dozen auto burglaries,” he told the committee. “Anytime we take one of these serial auto burglars into custody, even though we might only be able to establish probable cause to charge for a relatively small number of burglaries, I think it’s very effective at preventing a large number of burglaries by getting them in custody.”
SFPD advises car owners to not leave valuables in the car — and the city likely needs to undertake a much louder campaign to get this through to tourists. TOURISTS TO SF, IF YOU ARE LISTENING: YOU CAN NOT PARK YOUR RENTAL CAR FULL OF STUFF ANYWHERE AND EXPECT YOUR STUFF TO STILL BE THERE WHEN YOU RETURN.
Preston suggests that such a campaign could do a lot to bring break-in numbers down, because there would be less stuff to steal.
And the police urge witnesses to give descriptions of suspects, and call 911 if they think suspects are scoping out an area. “If you’re able to safely do so, please take a video or photo of the suspects and their car,” Commander Jackson said. “When officers do respond, please let them know I have video, I have photos of the suspect.”
The committee did not take any formal vote, and scheduled another hearing before they send any legislation to the full board.
But could this legislation even change anything? Maybe so! As the Chronicle pointed out in a recent historical retrospective, there was a huge auto burglary epidemic here in the 1910s. And that was quelled with information campaigns, teaching people to padlock their spare tires, and (sigh) not to leave their automobile idling and unattended while completing errands.
Image: @KyungLahCNN via Twitter