Six weeks after a Cadillac Escalade was robbed at an Ocean Beach parking lot, the San Francisco Police Department put out a press release asking anyone with information to speak up. Stolen in the Aug. 24 smash-and-grab was some $900,000 worth of jewelry.

The prospects of bringing the thieves to justice aren’t promising. Moreover, at the beginning of the year, smash-and-grabs — as auto-break-ins are known — were more popular than ever.

A different crime-fighting strategy was needed, and in August, new SFPD Chief Bill Scott decided the new approach would be to put more cops on the street.

In his announcement, Scott called foot beats “a visible deterrent to crime.”

To get more officers on the street, Scott dissolved the 18-member Patrol Bureau Task Force that, since 2015, had been investigating car burglaries and making arrests.

In a sense, Scott opted for deterrence rather than focusing on the crime after it has been committed.  The District Attorney’s office will continue to work closely with police on prosecution, but it appears that Scott wants to see if he can stop some of the incidents from happening in the first place.

A difficult crime

The wave of car burglaries first appeared on the SFPD’s radar in July 2014, and by 2015, more than 26,000 car break-ins were reported to police — an increase of 18 percent over the prior year.

The strategy, first devised in 2015, called for a plainclothes Patrol Bureau Task Force officer to investigate, make arrests and build cases that the District Attorney could make stick. Doing so is incredibly difficult because police essentially have to catch someone in the act or have video or eye-witness accounts.

Yet without ubiquitous eyes and cameras, “there are a lot of cases out there without a lot of evidence and suspect information,” SFPD officer Robert Rueca said. “If we don’t have any suspect information, how do we get to an arrest?”

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The task force netted some 230 arrests between its start-up in late 2015 and Scott’s Aug. 31 announcement. The percentage of cases prosecutors take action on has hovered right around 80 percent since 2015, or about 32 cases a month, according to District Attorney’s data. In the end, an average of 68 percent of cases SFPD forwards result in charges. How many lead to convictions remains unknown.

All of this was somewhat effective. Auto burglaries dipped five percent between 2015 and 2016, and a grand jury looking at auto burglaries wanted to bolster the task force’s resources. The cross-precinct unit, the grand jury report said, “pioneered a tactic of tracking serial offenders through multiple break-ins before making the arrest,” which enabled “the possibility of bundling cases for the DA.”

Bundling refers to tying thieves to multiple cases. “We believe that the vast majority of those auto burglaries are committed by just a few number,” Rueca said.

While the charge rate went up by four percent, arrests proved stubbornly difficult, staying at the two percent of 2014. What’s more, after dipping slightly in 2016, auto burglaries surged in the first four months of 2017 — jumping by 30 percent compared to the same period of 2016.

Enter the new foot and bike patrols that started only a month ago.  

Capt. Paul Yep, who runs the Central Police District in the city’s landmark and diversity-rich northeastern tip — where car burglaries were among the city’s highest — led the charge for more beat cops on his streets.  

A three-pronged plan he shared with Mission Local included educating the public, revamping enforcement and more effective prosecution.

“When criminals are out there, let’s do our best to … not only apprehend them, but make sure we’re working with the DA’s office to prosecute,” Yep said. “I’m confident that to the best of our ability — and we’re outnumbered — we’re doing this.”

Rueca said the implementation of that blueprint in the other nine police districts varies, but in just a couple of months, they’ve seen an uptick in auto-burglary arrests. But Rueca cautioned that it’s too early to tell whether the increased number of beat cops is the reason.

It also remains to be seen whether the recent change will cut down on the number of break-ins.

Graphic by Sam Goldman