Will SFPD’s plan to quell auto break-ins work?  

The city officials tasked with taking on San Francisco’s auto break-in epidemic must, at times, feel a bit like they’re trying to piece together Humpty Dumpty.

That job, you’ll recall, eluded all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. In retrospect, tasking horses with fixing this mess probably wasn’t a grand idea. But when things grow dire enough, any solution will do.

And, in San Francisco, it’s dire: From January to Dec. 1 of last year, an astounding 26,662 auto boostings were reported here. That’s 80 break-ins a day. That’s a boosting every 18 minutes.

Of those 26,662 reported break-ins, the cops registered 446 arrests. That’s 1.7 percent, which is as low as you think it is. Break-ins are up and arrests are down — and there have, all but certainly, never been more cops on the payroll.

And so, for months, Supervisors Norman Yee and Hillary Ronen — whose stomping ground, the Mission, is a place where you’ll stomp on plenty of shards — have been doing their best impressions of Howard Beale. They’re as mad as hell. And they’re not going to take this anymore.

Last Monday, the two supervisors held a press conference alongside Chief Bill Scott and the captains of both Mission and Taraval stations. Rather than have Yee and Ronen legislate where to put his cops, Scott countered that he’d create special units in the individual station houses tasked with confronting the epidemic.

Here’s how he put it:

“We are taking strong, proactive steps to reduce vehicle burglaries and bicycle thefts by assigning District Station officers specifically to the prevention, reporting and investigation of these crimes. By working closely with our community members and the deployment of data-driven strategies … we will make an impact on these types of crimes.”

Now that … is a lot of words. But not just any words. “Proactive.” “Data-driven.” These are words like “organic” and “holistic,” meant to set a tone while remaining ambiguous in meaning.

Your humble narrator has, like everyone else, suffered a break-in (they got a drugstore pair of sunglasses; my cousin and I split $180 for a new back window). It would be spectacular if last week’s announcement marked a turning point. But it’s difficult to imagine that happening. This move seems more akin to announcing you’ve determined the shape of the table for treaty negotiations.

Meanwhile, the battle rages on.

What does this “plan” do? Well, a great deal of discretion is left to individual captains. But, in short, it designates small teams — first in the Mission and Taraval and, eventually, elsewhere — to focus on boostings.  

But does it, really? Mission Captain Gaetano Caltagirone affirms that he will now designate a point person for break-ins — but won’t alter his extant strategy. What’s more, for these four officers — yes, just four — Caltagirone affirmed that dealing with boostings would be “part of their jobs.” He could not confirm it would even be “most” of their jobs.

What exactly will the teams do? Well, they’ll interface with the public and analyze where problems are — which helps determine where cops should be.

But, echoes Ingleside Captain Jack Hart, “We do this anyway. We have officers from the Station Investigation Teams tracking this. My staff pulls weekly stats from the crime analysis unit. Officers know where the hotspots are.”

Adds Richmond Captain Alexa O’Brien: “I had my crime analysts give me the top six locations for vehicle burglaries. And I staffed footbeats in all of those locations.”

Flooding small areas like Land’s End with cops has reduced break-ins there by around 28 percent of late, O’Brien said. But it’s hit or miss: “I’ll be honest: some days it works, and some days we’re back up 40 percent,” she sighs. “The criminals are so organized and methodical.”  

So, at this point, you’re probably wondering: Is formalizing what station captains were, by and large, already doing a novel strategy in the face of a crime wave? Is analyzing crime data and putting cops where there’s crime something revelatory?

Your humble narrator spoke with more than a dozen San Francisco cops with more than 300 combined years of experience to answer these questions. Many of them were bewildered by the chief’s announcement.

“This is not a ‘plan,'” said one veteran Mission cop. “It’s a reaction.” Adds another: “There is nothing profound about what they’re going to do. There is nothing groundbreaking. I just don’t get it.” Adds yet another: “Have we not been tracking data? Have we not been doing educational outreach? Everything in that memo was already being done — or it should’ve been.”

The notion of putting officers in problem areas is so old that the term for it predates computers and refers to a map on the wall: “Cops on pins.” It is to policing what “keep your eye on the ball” is to baseball.

And yet this department has to keep its eye on many balls. Whether through proactive, data-driven policing, dumb luck, or a bit of both, prior to last week’s Mission stabbing, nobody had been murdered in this city for two months. This cannot be understated or ignored. But veteran officers still wondered if Chief Scott understands that consequence-free break-ins drain his department’s credibility.

“Many San Franciscans feel the SFPD has lost its efficacy,” lamented a longtime cop. “We’re secretaries with guns who show up after the fact, write a police report, and disappear.”

In fact, they don’t even always do that. An increasing number of victims are shunted to 311 and may never even deal with a cop — something of an anathema in a city that purportedly values community policing.

Things have grown so dire, some SFPD higher-ups actually applauded Ronen and Yee’s cajoling of the department.

“I am not unhappy that Hillary and Norman are visible on this. Their constituents are being hurt,” said one SFPD graybeard. “Had they not been so public with this, the department would continue to sit on its hands. Instead, they roused the department to come up with a plan.” He pauses. “A plan that is strangely lacking in detail. Will the people eat this meal of ambiguity and feel satisfied?” He pauses again. “Man, I don’t know.”

A few years ago, a passing cop noticed a car with tinted windows and paper license plates — a dead giveaway for the crews of professional thieves, many from out of town, who are responsible for the lion’s share of this city’s break-ins. The driver of that car, spooked when he believed he was spotted, took off at high speed.

For safety reasons, the SFPD does not normally pursue break-in suspects or drivers of tinted-window paper-plate cars who bolt when flagged down. “That’s our policy,” bemoaned an SFPD veteran. “Of course, they know this.”

This particular driver ran a red light, which would normally be enough to elude capture. But then he struck another car and sparked a multi-vehicle pile-up. Unlike the vast majority of car thieves, these two were arrested. “That’s a good case!” recalls one officer. “It was viewed by a cop. All the stuff in custody. All the bells and whistles! Hit and run!”

One of the men in the car, per SFPD sources, pleaded guilty to two hit-and-run counts and one auto-burglary count. He was a “multiple convicted felon.” The other man, already on misdemeanor probation for auto burglary, pleaded guilty to another burglary count, along with possession of stolen property.

The first, per the SFPD, received 15 days in county jail. The second got two.

And these are, again, the 2 out of every 100 car thieves the cops actually apprehend. Foot patrols and education campaigns will help — but organized, methodical criminals will find new targets. And the department’s new plan doesn’t spell out how to handle the prodigious amount of time and effort it takes to make cases and arrest suspects — before legal outcomes like those above, which aren’t exactly a deterrent.

Many, many San Francisco cops claim this city is reaping the whirlwind for its conscious decision to pare back lengthy sentences for non-violent offenders and empty its jails. It’s a cynical point of view, but these are cynical times.

A cynic might also note that the SFPD’s “plan” buys the department six months to gather (and polish) the data — and provides district supervisors, like the two who demanded action, unprecedented opportunities to insert themselves into this matter. Of course, these angry supes will now direct the brunt of their grievances to the lower-ranking station house officers tasked with overseeing boostings.

Not the captains. Not the chief.

Ronen, in fact, assures us she’s going to be talking to these cops just about every day. But these are strange days. Veteran cops admitted the SFPD deserves to have Hillary Ronen light a fire under its ass.

“A 2,400-member department should have greater effectiveness,” said one. “There should be some accountability.”

Ronen told us she’ll see to it there is. Count on this. And count on broken glass inundating the Mission for the foreseeable future.  

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13 Comments

  1. Mike

    Great article, but “boosting a car” is generally used to describe stealing a car, not breaking into and stealing *from* a car.

  2. pontifikator

    A letter writer to the Chron suggested bait cars. Has this been tried? If not, why not?

    • Joe Eskenazi Post author

      Sir or madam —

      This is something cops are split on. You can do this, but it takes a great deal of manpower and time. And, even with a great case, you may not get a heavy sentence.

  3. phongpei

    try working at night and very early a.m. why do you think you can community police in the daytime? pull over cars (without license plates) at night cruising neighborhoods. it’s not that hard.

    • Joe Eskenazi Post author

      Sir or madam —

      It’s as hard as those cars’ drivers want it to be. The SFPD will not chase a car that bolts when it is pulled over out of safety concerns. Which those drivers know.

  4. Edward

    Eskanazi, Could you compare how the DA and the courts handle similar cases in San Mateo County? Find out if auto burglars go to state prison out of SM County. The DA’s in SF like to throw around the phase “bundling cases.” They want to sound like they are being tactical. In reality they are discounting cases – crooks get charged for multiple cases but in the end the crooks get a sweetheart deal. Its hard to arrest auto burglars but SFPD does it steadily and when the cases goes to the DA and the courts the consequences are a small nuisance to the criminal. The whole process is dragged out and there is very little sting and very little incapacitation. Every day you take this type of criminal off the street there are one or more less victims.

  5. nomnom

    Sounds like they should still pull over EVERY tinted window-paper plate car whether they bolt or not even if they are not allowed to give chase.
    If the police know that a very large percentage of the break ins have this type of vehicle as a common denominator, then creating a deterrent environment would go a long way to decrease the number of thefts.

    Additionally, it would behoove the supervisors to educate the public that the laws that allow, in effect, catch and release, need to be changed urgently. It’s public pressure that will make that possible.

  6. Fay Nissenbaum

    Writer Eskenazi, how can you drop a bomb in the article and not give it attention? You reported that organized criminal gangs are behind most/many auto break-ins. Whoa – to steal “drugstore sunglasses” or what? Are these out of Oakland drug gangs or a conspiracy of thieves seeking cars with spare change and candy in the console?? Bring back the sidebar and lay down some background, sir!

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