Politics as Usual

Sale of the century

A modest proposal for dealing with retail theft

This was not what the city intended when it banned single-use plastic bags and told people to bring their own reusable shopping bags. The video earlier this year of a man filling up a garbage bag with stolen merchandise at a Walgreens and exiting on his bicycle while helpless onlookers stood by did much to cement the city’s reputation nationally as a place where crime runs rampant. Though the thief was later caught, he was no one-time criminal; police said he struck the same Gough Street Walgreens four days in a row.

In late September, Mayor London Breed released San Francisco’s Organized Retail Crime Initiative, which Fox News viewers were probably surprised to learn was actually against retail crime.

The plan is based on better reporting, investigation, and solving of retail thefts and addressing the “upstream criminal enterprises that fuel them,” according to the mayor’s office. The San Francisco Police Department’s Organized Retail Crime Unit will expand from two to five investigators, add a dedicated lieutenant for local crime investigation, and work regionally with the Organized Retail Crime Task Force of the California Highway Patrol. In addition, SFPD will dedicate personnel for field operations and communications with retailers; triple the SFPD Community Ambassador program (which uses retired officers to patrol and act as deterrence), and expand its geographic reach; manage the privately funded “10B” officers for deterrence, and expand the Teleserve Unit to facilitate increased reporting of crimes.

The mayor’s office noted that if the plan is “successful in enabling retailers to maximize their reporting of retail crimes, a potentially dramatic increase in larceny and commercial burglary crime rates should be expected.” That is to say, there could be a dramatic increase in those official crime rates, not that the incidents of actual crime will be pushed up by it.

Collaboration plays a big role in the plan. As SFPD Chief Bill Scott said, “This collaborative approach reflects the full promise of community policing — not solely to support our city’s economic recovery, but to better protect public safety that is too often endangered by retail theft crews and the sophisticated criminal enterprises funding them.”


The frustrating thing is that it’s not just infamous cases such as the Walgreens biker we’ve all heard about, it’s that we’ve witnessed it ourselves when we’re shopping. I’ve seen it, too. I have witnessed people shoplifting and walking out of the Walgreens near my office more times than I’ve seen crimes of any sort in every other city I’ve lived in — combined.

People take out their frustration on a number of targets. Some blame the SFPD, others choose Chesa Boudin, some blame the overall oppressive capitalist exploitation of blah blah blah, and some point to 60 percent of their fellow citizens.

No, 60 percent of Californians are not looting pharmacies. California Proposition 47 was passed in 2014 by nearly 60 percent of voters. With the goal of reducing the prison population, Proposition 47 redefined certain nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies. In particular, shoplifting would be a misdemeanor if the value of the stolen property does not exceed $950.

There’s conflicting evidence for whether the proposition was responsible for the increase in retail thefts (other states without that ballot measure have also experienced an uptick). But what seems to be the popular consensus is that the increase in blatant, walk-right-by-the-cashier-and-don’t-even-pretend-you’re-not-stealing theft has increased because of it. If it’s not a felony, why bother to call the police, who will be able to do little more than cite the thief and send him on his way.

I should note that supporters of this proposition weren’t all just lefty do-gooders. It also included Newt Gingrich, who co-authored a Sept. 16, 2014 Los Angeles Times op-ed that said the ballot measure “will help the state emphasize punishments such as community supervision and treatment that are more likely to work instead of prison time.”

Sounds good on paper, even coming from Gingrich, the man who has been called the person most responsible for the viciousness of our national political discourse over the past three decades.

Was Proposition 47 worth it?

It’s easy to scoff at a politician’s statement as just so much press release pablum that doesn’t really say anything. But I think Mayor Breed got it right when she said “Retail theft and commercial burglaries are not victimless crimes. They hurt working families due to reduced work hours, shuttered stores, and lost jobs. They hurt customers and seniors who are losing convenient access to prescription medications and vaccinations because of pharmacy closures. They hurt neighborhoods suffering from fewer local retailers and more empty storefronts. The strategy we’re outlining today is an all-hands-on-deck approach that brings the full partnership of state and local law enforcement and retailers to bear to aggressively pursue, investigate and deter organized retail crime in San Francisco.”

Will it work? We’ll see, and hope for the best.

If it doesn’t, perhaps stores could pursue their own policy. If the limit is $950, perhaps a store like Walgreens could simply add $950 to the price of every item, but run an ongoing “San Francisco Special” in which at checkout they give a $950 discount per item. Talk about customer loyalty programs! You check out, you get that cough syrup for $12.95. You walk out the door without paying, you are stealing an item valued at $962.95.

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