Lack of conviction

In previous columns, I have written about the incidence of violent crime and property crime in San Francisco, and compared the crime rates with other Bay Area counties and other large urban counties in California. The statistics came from the state attorney general and the California Department of Corrections, and the statistics are kept by county but not by city.

One reader correctly pointed out that San Francisco’s unique position as a city and a county may distort the comparisons. She rightly said that Los Angeles County consists of far more than the city of Los Angeles, including many suburban and even rural areas, whereas San Francisco is a tightly packed urban area. There are reasons, which I will point out later, that go to offset that effect, but to attempt to address this possible distortion I have considered a different set of statistics.

The FBI collects crime data for cities as well as counties, and the following tables are compiled from the FBI database for the years 2005 through 2009. I compared San Francisco to the cities (from north to south) of Sacramento, Richmond, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I looked at violent crime such as murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, and separately at property crime such as burglary, larceny and auto theft.

The table below shows the rankings based on crimes per 100,000 population as an annual average of the years 2005–2009.

When we compare San Francisco to other cities instead of counties, the results indicate that San Francisco is in the middle – about average. That is still a long way from the impression I had 40 years ago that San Francisco was safer than most big cities. I included Oakland and Richmond because local news coverage would lead you to believe they have high crime rates. The statistics bear that out – particularly relating to violent crime.

These new statistics do not change the facts developed in my two prior columns:
a. The arrest rates for crime by SFPD are consistent with other counties. SFPD is not “soft” on crime, and that is not a cause of increased crime rates.

b. The conviction rate for people arrested for crimes in San Francisco is significantly lower than in other large urban areas.

When comparing San Francisco County to Los Angeles County, we must recognize that San Francisco, in the same way as the city of Los Angeles, is the center of a large urban, suburban and rural area. The difference is that the urban, suburban and rural areas surrounding San Francisco are part of separate counties. When looking at conviction rates in San Francisco County and Alameda County, it does not take a very smart criminal in Oakland to work out that spending the toll to cross the Bay Bridge and coming to San Francisco to commit your crime may be a good investment. The chances of being caught are about the same, but the chances of ending up in state prison are far less. To criminals from other parts of the Bay Area, San Francisco has become what the lawyers call an “attractive nuisance.”

So what can we do about all this? Conviction rates are strongly affected by the district attorney and by the conduct of judges. Those are both elected offices. You can help decide who holds those posts.

Alan Silverman is a Marina resident and board member of the Marina Community Association.