Why Can't San Francisco Stop Its Epidemic of Window Smashing?

San Francisco is among America’s richest cities. Its budget is nearly $9 billion a year. It is only 47 square miles in area. So why are city leaders unable to stop vandals from smashing car windows at the astonishing rate of more than 70 per day?

“The city took 25,899 reports of car break-ins in 2015,” The San Francisco Chronicle reports. That's a 77 percent increase over the five years beginning in 2010.

The epidemic has been getting worse for years. Back in 2006, when there were 10,000 fewer break-ins per year, police, prosecutors, and then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office felt that 41 such burglaries a day was enough to justify a crackdown.

For visitors, these “smash-and-grab” burglaries are enough to ruin a vacation, as thieves bust open rental cars and make off with suitcases, cameras, and even passports.

Locals arguably have it even worse. They can’t park at night without worrying that their windows will be busted a second or third or fourth time. For the very rich, the repair job is pocket change. For everyone else, it’s a significant surprise expense.

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I discovered that the hard way. A couple months ago, I parked a 10-year-old Nissan Altima on 18th Street near South Van Ness in The Mission while in town to attend a wedding. It was only there overnight. Before I returned the next morning, a vandal had smashed both passenger-side windows. As best I can tell, nothing was stolen. It cost roughly $340 including tip to get the windows replaced. I could manage the expense, but federal data suggests that nearly half of Americans would have trouble coming up with a similar sum in an unexpected emergency.

A lot of San Francisco journalists who’ve covered this story have their own tales of woe. Sergio Quintana of the local ABC affiliate said that his car has been broken into three times in recent years. KTTV says its cars and news vans have been hit several times.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr had his car window smashed, too.

“Why San Francisco is suffering a unique spike in property crime hasn’t been fully explained,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports, “but the problem is at the center of a war between District Attorney George Gascón and the city’s police officers’ union over their respective crime-fighting competence as well as the impact of reforms favored by Gascón and other progressives designed to thin jails and prisons.”

The police particularly dislike Proposition 47, “a ballot initiative passed into law in November 2014 that reduced six nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.” But that was a statewide measure, while the smash-and-grab epidemic is local and predates 2015. What’s more, Gascón says that he still charges car break-ins as felonies.

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After the San Francisco Fox affiliate had a vehicle broken into in broad daylight while staffers were eating lunch, they called police, but didn’t get much help. Then they tracked down security camera footage that showed two men breaking into their vehicle, including their faces and the license plate of the car they climbed into.

7 weeks later the SFPD still hadn’t identified or caught them.

Other local press outlets report that a great many “smash-and-grab” car burglaries are perpetrated by repeat offenders who are given light sentences by judges who don’t see the crime as a particularly serious offense. Is that judgment correct?

The cost to victims is highly variable. Some are like me and have nothing stolen. The only cost is replacing the glass. Others lose purses, laptop computers, and other valuables, sometimes including items with sentimental value that can never be replaced.

If we’re very conservative, and figure an average of $500 of economic damage to victims of car break-ins, these thieves cost San Francisco victims just short of $13 million last year. And that’s using the number of reported break-ins. Many more go unreported.

There are other costs, too:

A handful of guns stolen from vehicles in San Francisco and then used to kill people—including a muralist in Oakland, a backpacker in Golden Gate Park, a hiker in Marin and a woman walking on a city pier—have made headlines.

But those high-profile cases represent just a fraction of the guns stolen from cars in a city that has seen a rash of auto burglaries. Through Nov. 20, 57 guns have been stolen from vehicles in San Francisco. That’s up from 48 in all of 2014 and 31 in 2013, according to San Francisco Police Department statistics.

In a related story, the New York Times reported, “Recent data from the F.B.I. show that San Francisco has the highest per-capita property crime rate of the nation’s top 50 cities. About half the cases here are thefts from vehicles, smash-and-grabs...”

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The article continues:

Scott Wiener, a supervisor and an advocate for more aggressive law enforcement, said his constituents were urging him to act. “I can’t tell you the number of times where I have received emails from moms saying, ‘My kids just asked me why that man has a syringe sticking out of his arm,’ ” he said. “San Francisco at times is a consequence-free zone,” Mr. Wiener said. “I’m not advocating extreme law and order, but there has to be consequences. Sometimes people might need to spend six months in jail to think about what they did.” In a bitterly contested 6-to-5 vote last year, Mr. Wiener led the passage of a measure adding several hundred officers to the city’s police force, the first increase since the 1980s, when the population was over 10 percent smaller.

But the supervisor for the area that includes The Mission, where my car was burglarized, said this:

On the other side is David Campos, a supervisor who opposes the increase in police officers and describes Mr. Wiener’s views as “a very knee-jerk kind of punitive approach that is ineffective and inconsistent with the values of San Francisco.” Mr. Campos and many others evoke the charitable spirit of the city’s namesake, St. Francis. “We are not going to criminalize people for being poor,” he said. “That criminalization is only going to make it harder for them to get out of poverty.”

San Francisco’s liberal ethos, Mr. Campos said, was changing as the city focused more on business and the needs of the tech industry. “I think there has been a shift in the people who have come to San Francisco,” Mr. Campos said of the city’s new arrivals, a group that is well educated and well heeled. He deplores what he describes as a growing “sink-or-swim” free-market ideology that stands in contrast to the city’s traditions.

“I don’t know which San Francisco will prevail,” he said.

Campos’ position is frustrating. (See update here*.) The people who want San Francisco’s “smash-and-grab” vandals punished, myself included, do not want “to criminalize people for being poor.” We want to criminalize people for willfully smashing in car windows, stealing personal items, and imposing hundreds of dollars in repairs on victims, most of whom are working people who really suffer from such a loss.

Campos vilified his colleague for saying, “Sometimes people might need to spend six months in jail to think about what they did.” Yet how did Campos react to news that guns are being stolen in some of these smash-and-grab burglaries? He crafted legislation “to require that law enforcement officers as well as civilians who leave guns in parked vehicles in the city secure the weapons in lock boxes or in an enclosed, locked trunk. Failing to secure a gun in a parked car would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail or a $10,000 fine.”

In other words, he wants to punish some of the victims of smash-and-grab burglaries with longer jail sentences than he is willing to give the perpetrators of the crime.

A backlash against figures like Campos helped fuel California’s last round of over-punitive criminal-justice policies. Fortunately, there is a much more sensible course available today.

Contra the San Francisco cops and Campos, there is no contradiction in believing that California imposed overzealous penalties on petty criminals for a generation and believing that a crackdown on property crime in San Francisco is overdue. The key is to avoid the mistakes of past crackdowns by internalizing the lesson that raising the likelihood of punishment is more important than increasing its length.

San Francisco shouldn’t send first-time “smash-and-grab” convicts to state prison for five years, or for life because they’ve already got two felony drug convictions in their past.

But they should punish as many perpetrators as possible as quickly as possible.

They should force first-time offenders to do a short stint in city jail––30 days, say–– to strap on an ankle bracelet that monitors their location after their release, and to make restitution. For second-time offenders, “six months in jail to think about what they did,” plus two-years of monitoring, seems like a reasonable punishment to me.

Alternatively, city officials could continue to tolerate the window-smashing, causing more working people to be victimized and making their city a more lawless place. At some point, San Francisco residents will get so fed up that voters will elevate their own version of a Rudy Giuliani figure, embrace surveillance cameras, and otherwise react more harshly than would’ve seemed necessary if municipal officials had only exercised a modicum of common sense.

The movement opposing over-incarceration is overdue, important, and fragile. It can’t survive another era of big-city progressives failing to keep crime at reasonable levels. L.A. has 4 million residents and had 27,535 car burglaries last year. 25,899 car burglaries in a city of less than a million people just isn’t reasonable.

*Update: After this article was published Supervisor Campos emailed me, writing that “the NYT article you rely on is wrong in its reporting,” and adding, “We should target property crime and I have advocated as much.” I replied, “I am eager to update my article if it misrepresents your position,” then asked followup questions: “What specifically did the New York Times get wrong? With regard to the comments made by your colleague: Do you think six months in the city jail is an appropriate punishment for someone caught in a smash-and-grab car burglary? What else, if anything, would you do about the smash-and-grab car burglary epidemic?”

He suggested a phone call Wednesday, then wrote this:

I'm happy to explain when we speak, but the main problem with the NYT article is that the reporter is asking me for my views on the most pressing issue facing SF based on a Chamber poll.  He describes that issues as street conditions and I assumed he is talking about homelessness, which the Chamber poll found to be number one issue.  My comment about not criminalizing the poor had to do w/ homelessness.

Had he asked me about property crime in particular, I would have noted that I actually held a hearing on car break ins where I called for more enforcement by police. And if he had asked me about police staffing, which he didn't even raise the issue, I would have noted that my problem w/ the Wiener approach is twofold. One, he calls for more cops without any analysis of what the need is.  I am a former police commissioner so I know it's a complicated issue.  Two, as the DA notes, the problem w/ car break-ins is that the police have made arrests only in 4 percent of the cases, well below the national average of 14 percent. Thus, unless we do something about arrests, we are going to have a problem. Is it a deployment issue or staffing issue. In any event, happy to chat.

I’ll continue trying to find out what he believes the penalty ought to be for smash-and-grabs and update this article again if I’m successful.

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This article was originally published on The Atlantic.