Politics & Policy

San Francisco Grapples with Brazen Shoplifting Spree, Much of It Caught on Camera

Shoppers wear masks while shopping at a Walmart store in Bradford, Pa., July 20, 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

“We don’t grow our hair out long and shaggy,” sang Merle Haggard in 1969, “like the hippies out in San Francisco do.”

What the city’s officials and business owners would give for that to be the chief charge against it today.

Over the last several years, San Francisco — long a punching bag of conservatives — has more than lived up to its reputation on the right. Homelessness is up. So are reports of human waste on its streets. Most recently, though, the problem is theft — not sophisticatedly planned, night-time heists but brazen, day-lit disregard for the rule of law.

This May, Walgreens announced that it had closed, to date, 17 stores over the last five years, citing the substantial losses it has suffered from shoplifting in the city. CVS, a competitor, has labeled San Francisco “one of the epicenters of organized retail crime” in the country and closed a number of stores as well.

Target too has adjusted policy to meet the challenges of operating in the Bay Area, staying open only from nine in the morning until six at night. Brian Harper-Tibaldo, a spokesman for the chain, explained the reasoning behind the shortened hours to the local media outlet SFGATE:

“For more than a month, we’ve been experiencing a significant and alarming rise in theft and security incidents at our San Francisco stores, similar to reports from other retailers in the area.”

The consequences of closures and shortened hours are many; both obvious and more downstream. Not only do they result in job losses and make it more difficult for residents, and especially lower-income residents, to purchase needed goods, but they also send an ominous message to other businesses that specific neighborhoods — and even the city writ large — are risky areas to invest or plant roots in.

Announcements like Walgreens and Target’s are accompanied by embarrassing videos make it plain — and viscerally so — just how normalized petty crime has become in the Golden Gate City. In June, a video of a thief loudly but casually piling a number of goods into a bag before hopping on a bicycle and pedaling slowly out of the store — mostly unimpeded save for a half-hearted swat from a security guard — made the rounds on Twitter.

Kevin Greathouse, a security guard at another local Walgreens, explained the effort (or lack thereof) to stop the thief to the local ABC affiliate this way:

“It’s going to be lawsuits [if the guards physically intervene], obviously they don’t want ourselves or anybody else to get injured while we’re out here attempting to make these apprehensions and leave it to law enforcement.”

Then on Monday a less banal, but equally disturbing, video of a number of burglars sprinting out of Neiman Marcus, a luxury department store, before jumping in getaway cars waiting for them in the street trended on Twitter.

Dion Lim, a reporter for the aforementioned ABC affiliate, spoke to the man who took the video, who works at the business across the street. He told her that similar events had occurred in his own store, and that they had been “’traumatizing’ to him and his colleagues.”

The unlucky patrons of Neiman Marcus were hurried to the back of the store to keep them away from the intruders and broken glass, per Lim.

In the video, a bystander exclaims that “they,” Neiman Marcus staff and security, “can’t do anything!”

This is the result not merely of corporate policy of the kind explained by Greathouse, nor the overwhelming force of the sheer number of thieves, but also of public-policy choices.

In 2014, California passed Proposition 47 as a ballot initiative. Its effect was to render thefts of under $950 in property misdemeanors rather than felonies. Thieves, both of the lone wolf and pack varieties, have been emboldened, as the policy change makes it far less likely that they are stopped in the act, and far less painful to get caught later. Lt. Tracy McCray of the San Francisco Police Department told the Washington Examiner that criminals are often cited instead of arrested, and that it is common for charges to be dropped if the culprit doesn’t show on his or her appointed court date.

McCray charged District Attorney Chesa Boudin — who ran for the position on a progressive platform, pledging to oppose policies that perpetuate mass incarceration — with championing a “‘criminals first’ agenda.”

Whether Boudin and other city officials will change course to address this increasingly pervasive problem remains to be seen. Kate Chatfield, senior director of legislation and policy in Boudin’s office, asserted earlier this week that “the ‘crime surge’ crowd shares the same ideology as The Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent film that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan.

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