Crime Beat

Criminal intent

Where does San Francisco really land in the crime rankings?

Standing in line at the Walgreens checkout, you see a slumping, somewhat disheveled man who has been loitering in one of the nearby aisles suddenly quickly head toward the exit, using his coat to conceal something he has just taken. The women at the checkout counter can do nothing more than scold him and look at each other in exasperation.

That exact scenario has been witnessed numerous times at the same Walgreens by this writer just in the past year.

Something spotted in February: A man posts on the Nextdoor app complaining that Safeway won’t detain or arrest anyone unless they steal $1,000 worth of merchandise. Therefore he announces that he is going to go steal $999 worth of merchandise from the local Safeway.

Despite drops in some types of crime in San Francisco — such as a significant decline in auto break-ins over the past year — other crimes are increasingly in your face in this crowded city. From people being harrassed while riding Muni to store owners dealing with broken window attacks, San Franciscans of all walks of life can meet up and instantly have a shared topic of conversation: Crime.

How bad is it? Is it really worse than it used to be? And how do San Francisco’s crime rates compare to other American cities?

149 A DAY

On its website that shares extensive city-by-city and crime-by-crime data, the FBI highlights a caveat: “Data users should not rank locales because there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place. [These] statistics include only jurisdictional population figures along with reported crime, clearance, or arrest data. Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale.”

And that is exactly what we want to explore here. What makes San Francisco different from other cities of roughly the same size?

In 2017, about 1,247,321 violent crimes occurred across the nation, a drop of 0.2 percent from 2016; 6,301 of those crimes were in San Francisco. That same year, 7,694,086 property crimes happened nationwide, down 3 percent from 2016.; 54,356 of those property crimes took place here in San Francisco — at a rate of 148.9 a day.

Let’s look at some cities in our neighborhood. Oakland, with roughly half the population of San Francisco, experienced 5,521 violent crimes and 25,422 property crimes in 2017. San Jose, with a population about 150,000 larger than San Francisco, had 4,188 violent crimes and 25,323 property crimes in 2017.

Further afield, you would expect Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million, to have even more crimes, and it does. In 2017, the city of big shoulders had 29,737 violent crimes — about 4.7 times more than San Francisco (and Chicago’s population is about 3 times larger than San Francisco’s, so it has a worse violent crime problem). But when it comes to property crime, Chicago had 88,324 incidents that year, which is only about 1.6 times larger than San Francisco’s count.

With a population of 870,000 to San Francisco’s 881,000, Indianapolis is similar in size to San Francisco. In 2017, it had 11,616 violent crimes and 38,415 property crimes, performing much worse in the violent category and much better in the property category. An even closer population match is Columbus, Ohio, with its 872,205 residents and 4,478 violent crimes with 34,408 property crimes, beating us in both categories.

You can go to the FBI crime statistics pages and do your own comparisons, but the basic trend seems to back up the complaints of residents, tourists, and business people in San Francisco that the city is suffering from a wave of property crimes that are not being curbed.

It’s not just locals who have noticed. The Economist recently reported on San Francisco’s status as having the highest property crime rate among the 20 largest U.S. cities. It cites as one possible cause the 10 percent decline in the number of San Francisco police officers per 100,000 residents following the Great Recession. That might play a role; others point to a get-out-of-jail-free card supplied to criminals by voters.


What does San Francisco have that out-of-state cities don’t? Besides the cable cars and the Rice-A-Roni? We have Proposition 47, the 2014 statewide measure that reduced the classification of most “nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” from felonies to misdemeanors.

In specifics, this meant that shoplifting was only a misdemeanor if the value of the stolen goods did not exceed $950 (thus the man’s ire at Safeway for its $1,000 trigger is misplaced). The $950 limit also applies to grand theft (thus our continuing wave of auto break-ins), receiving stolen property, forgery, fraud, and writing a bad check. Personal use of most illegal drugs also now fell into this category.

State voters will have an opportunity to address what some people see as Proposition 47’s failures in a little less than two years from now. On the Nov. 3, 2020 ballot will be the California Criminal Sentencing, Parole, and DNA Collection Initiative, which would “add crimes to the list of violent felonies for which early parole is restricted; recategorize certain types of theft and fraud crimes as wobblers (chargeable as misdemeanors or felonies); and require DNA collection for certain misdemeanors.“


So with too few police, a high bar for stealing your way into a felony, and rising public concern about public safety and quality of life, focus can only go in so many areas.

In SFPD’s Compstat reporting, homicides declined 20 percent from January 2018 to January 2019; also down were robbery (7 percent), aggravated assault (25 percent), burglary (18 percent), larceny theft (24 percent), auto theft (8 percent), and arson (4 percent). Rape increased 35 percent.

The San Francisco Police Department reports that its top priority is reducing violent crime, and violent crime has declined over the years (as it has nationally). But SFPD also reports that the violent crime rate in FY 2017–18 was 712 per 100,000 residents, and the property crime rate was 5,715 per 100,000 residents; for FY 2018–19, the department predicts 749 violent crimes and 5,851 property crimes per 100,000 residents.

Police have also focused on thefts of property from vehicles. The numbers of total thefts from vehicles was 20,661 in 2016, up to 29,812 in 2017, and down to 24,920 in 2018.

San Francisco is neither the most crime-ridden city nor the least crime-ridden, with the exception of our number-one spot on the property crimes list. Until those numbers go down significantly and for a sustained period, people will still have lots of crime stories to share when they get together in the city.

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