Tom Morrison can only guess why more than 5,900 vehicles are stolen in San Francisco every year. But he does know where a few of them show up: his block.

“Sometimes cars end up here and people don’t know they’re stolen,” says the 62-year-old, who lives and owns a graphic design company on Hampshire and 21st Streets.

Two or three times a year, he walks outside in the morning to find a vehicle—items strewn around inside, windows ajar—parked under the bronze loquat trees. Most of the time, the older Hondas and Toyotas sit somewhere on the block, but six weeks ago, he found a car parked in his driveway: there it sat, a mid-1990s metallic green Accord.

“At first I thought it might be one of the neighbors’,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes to find a parking place.” But after asking around, he noticed that the car door was open. So he rummaged around and found some papers with the owner’s telephone number and called.

Morrison’s proximity to stolen autos has made him a citizen historian of the heists. In 2007, 805 vehicles were taken from the Mission. Even as auto theft dropped 27 percent in San Francisco—from 8,174 in 2005 to 5,903 in 2007—the neighborhood continued to have the highest rate of stolen cars, trucks, and motorcycles of any area in the city, except Ingleside.

More than 90 percent of these vehicles are recovered within a few weeks. Generally, the thieves only want to take the cars for a spin, before sweeping them clean of stereos, GPS units, and other sellable gear, says Lieutenant Garrett Tom from Mission Station.

As to why Hampshire Street is a good place to dump a car, Tom can’t say.

Morrison, however, has his own theories: It’s near Highway 101, a quick place to stash a car after a joy ride; the trees provide a nice cover; and several residents on the block work the night shift, which means their cars are elsewhere late at night when thieves need a parking space to unload a vehicle.

For Morrison, who has lived in the Mission since 1991, these episodes are a not-so-worrisome part of urban life, a cost of owning a vehicle in the city.

“It’s almost a victimless crime,” because most people have insurance, he says.

Morrison and his wife had their BMW 3-Series stolen 10 years ago out of their garage. Some neighbors pursued the thief in their Buick, but couldn’t keep pace. The car was found totaled a week later.

Not all vehicle thefts net out badly, though, he says. One of Morrison’s neighbors had her Saturn stolen a few years back and used the occasion to upgrade to a MINI Cooper.

Despite the high rates of theft, average insurance rates in the Mission tend to be slightly lower than in San Francisco, according to data from the California Insurance Commission. In 2004, the last year of available data, Mission District and Bernal Heights residents paid on average $1,023 in premiums per year, compared to $1,096 city-wide.

When cars do get stolen, however, Morrison wishes the police responded a bit more quickly. The morning he found the Honda Accord in his driveway, the dispatcher told him that they were dealing with more important issues and would take a while to arrive.  He understood—a spike in homicides six weeks ago stole headlines and tied up police.

But two hours later, he lost patience—his wife was trying to leave on a road trip.  He called one of his clients, a police sergeant in Bayview, who offered to take the report. A neighbor had to jack the car up and roll it out of the driveway so his wife could get out, he says.

Lieutenant Tom says that police usually respond to vehicle thefts in about 20 minutes. “It will probably be a B or C run,” he adds, using dispatcher lingo for assignments that are lower priority.

Morrison says he understands that police often have more pressing problems than stolen cars. What has been revelatory is learning how the police approach their investigation, he says.

Fifteen years ago, he called in his first stolen vehicle, a yellow, “funky” Toyota Corolla. As the reporting officers were wrapping up their report, he questioned whether they’d been thorough.

“I asked, ‘Aren’t you going to take fingerprints?’” he says. “And they just kind of looked at me.”

Now, after having reported dozens of stolen cars, he understands their wonder.

“The thing about stealing cars,” he says, “is that it’s kind of ubiquitous.”

Follow Us

Noah Buhayar is print and multimedia student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He reports primarily on business topics. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS’s business site and MarketWatch. Before coming to the Bay Area, he taught a semester of high school Spanish in Hawaii, spent a year in southern Chile on a Fulbright grant, and interned with the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer’s online division.

Leave a comment

Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *