On the evening of Nov. 7, 2020, a man entered the Walgreens at Mission and 30th Streets and headed for the refrigerated drinks. He grabbed several bottles and stuffed them into his duffel bag, then went to other aisles and put more merchandise into his bag. A security guard working at the store closed and locked the front door to keep the man from leaving without paying for the items, but the man pushed the guard out of the way, shattered the glass front door, and escaped. 

Shoplifting incidents at Walgreens and similar retail stores have become almost commonplace, perhaps especially so in the pandemic. The Walgreens at 30th and Mission reported 16 shoplifting incidents, including the one above, between early November, 2020, and early February, 2021, according to the Ingleside Police Station newsletter, compiled by Capt. Christopher Woon. Another Walgreens in the district, at 965 Geneva Ave., reported 30 incidents in the same time period. 

Walgreens reportedly takes a hands-off approach to shoplifting. Interfering with a would-be shoplifter can lead to assaults, injuries and insurance liability; instead, employees are encouraged to call the police only after suspects have left the store, according to their posts on Reddit. But when rampant shoplifting has forced other San Francisco Walgreens stores to close, and so many residents rely on their local Walgreens for vaccinations and medications, that policy could leave customers scrambling. 

“I don’t know Walgreens’ policy, but it’s almost certainly a policy of non-confrontation,” said Matthew Donahue, an assistant district attorney in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. “Every manager has told me something a little different about what their practice is.”

A mostly empty toy aisle at the Walgreens at Mission and 30th. Photo by Beth Winegarner.

Donahue has been working for the past few months with the ALTO Alliance, a consulting firm that helps retailers like Walgreens figure out how to deter shoplifting. Together they are working through a list of more than 100 shoplifting cases in San Francisco, some with identified suspects and many without, to support some of the hardest-hit stores and begin to prosecute repeat shoplifters. 

The DA’s office has since issued four warrants for serial shoplifters and arrested two of them, including one who frequented the 30th and Mission Walgreens, and is working on a fifth warrant, Donahue said. 

Identifying and locating shoplifters is tough, largely because the suspects are long gone by the time officers arrive, Donahue said. However, some shoplifters return so often that Walgreens employees learn their names. That information, combined with security footage, helps identify potential suspects, he said. 

Walgreens’ media relations team did not respond to numerous requests for comment. However, Walgreens employees occasionally turn to r/WalgreensStores on Reddit to discuss the chain’s shoplifting policies and their ramifications. 

“We’re supposed to wait until they leave the store to notify police, but what good does this do with no identifying information and a shitty camera system?” asked a Walgreens store manager posting under the name Nerdspice. “Why even try? I’m just struggling.”

Others posted fears that they could be fired if they tried to approach a suspected shoplifter. “My coworker, who was with the company 15+ years and took the bus to work, was fired over it. All she did was walk towards the person and she was fired,” an employee going by the name Belledawn posted

According to data compiled by the San Francisco Police Department, 18 Walgreens stores across the city saw 94 shoplifting incidents between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 2020. The chain has more than 60 stores across the city, and some, including the one at 965 Geneva and others at 1300 Bush St. and 2145 Market St., are shoplifted much more frequently. In many cases, police don’t write an incident report, because the suspect has already left the scene, Donahue said.

It appears that shoplifting has become more commonplace during the pandemic, possibly as a result of more locals losing jobs and falling into poverty. In mid-November, Capt. Woon described a “rash of thefts and robberies” plaguing retailers across San Francisco, including the 965 Geneva Walgreens, where officers arrested two shoplifters on the afternoon of Nov. 12, 2020. 

Most pill dispensers and cases have vanished from the Walgreens at 30th and Mission.

SFPD spokesman Officer Robert Rueca said the department doesn’t have any data on why these incidents have become so common. Rueca declined to make any knowledgeable officers available to discuss shoplifting trends, citing “staffing constraints,” and Woon did not respond to requests for comment. 

Donahue noted that the issue of shoplifting “touches on a lot of the issues we’re facing as a city: homelessness, poverty, drug addiction.” Some shoplifters are only taking what they need for themselves; he described a man who went into a Walgreens store each week to take a package of toilet paper. Others steal larger amounts of goods and resell them to earn money to take care of their families, he said. His team is focused only on stopping serious, repeat offenders, especially violent ones. 

Numerous shoplifting reports include threats of violence. In one incident, a shoplifter assaulted a fellow customer who began filming the theft in progress. In another, a shoplifter threatened a manager with a Taser for calling the police. In another, when a security guard attempted to intervene, the shoplifter lifted his shirt, revealing a large knife; he threatened to hurt the guard with it. 

Frequent shoplifting incidents can make Walgreens employees and customers alike feel unsafe. At the same time, these stores have become a crucial part of our public-health system. This past winter, as more Americans were encouraged to get flu shots amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Walgreens reported “unprecedented demand” for those vaccinations. 

Meanwhile, six Walgreens stores — at 2550 Ocean Ave., 4645 Mission St., 825 Market St., 2120 Polk St., 498 Castro St., and 5300 Third St. — will soon be administering Covid-19 vaccinations, according to a spokesperson at San Francisco’s COVID Command Center. 

In 2019 and 2020, seven Walgreens stores have closed, including the one at 16th and Mission streets, some as part of the company’s plan to close a number of stores across the country. But the Walgreens at Van Ness and Eddy closed because it was losing more than $1,000 a day to shoplifters, according to the Chronicle. 

It’s unclear how many losses these stores can take before they’re marked for closure, but Donahue and his team recognize that neighborhoods are better served if Walgreens and similar stores can remain open. 

“We want people to feel protected, and we want these places to stay in the neighborhood,” he said. “And we want to respond [to shoplifting] in a way that is most responsive and protective to public safety.”

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31 Comments

  1. Thank you for reporting on this, it’s been so confusing why Walgreens doesn’t mind their shelves being totally empty. It’s got to be way larger numbers than they report for shelves to be constantly empty for a whole year. The one in Hayes Valley has been a ghost store for a long time now.

    1. Oh, they mind. The empty shelves are usually a sign that the store will be closing soon. At best they’re waiting for locking cabinets and covers to get installed before they bother re-stocking. You can imagine that equipment is in short supply right now what with all the increased demand for retail theft solutions.

  2. What this fail to mention is that the city does not charge people who shop lifts under $950, which allows brazen acts and handcuffs the police force to act.

          1. You mention the threshold for a felony arrest for grand theft. The DA has the authority to charge misdemeanors…..

  3. What is being done to hinder the ability of thieves to sell their stolen product? All this product has to be sold to make stealing lucrative. The issue of smash and grab thefts of cars and stolen bicycles is also related.

  4. Enough is enough!
    Most of the shoplifters don’t do it to “help their families”, they aren’t stealing food, they steal high end items like makeup, hair products, and anything else that’s expensive. The individuals that steal food, tend to be the most needy people living on the streets. For the neighborhood community that rely on these stores, because a grocery store isn’t nearby, it makes it more difficult. The fact that the city allows shoplifting, because shoplifting under $950 isn’t considered a crime, is the reason why shoplifting is an epidemic, and has been a long time before Covid, now, there are less stores. I’ve witnessed crews of shoplifters go down Market St. going from store to store doing their smash and grabs. But now, the stores these people relied on, clothing stores, etc., are gone. The only stores open were Walgreens and CVS stores. The George Floyd “protests” closed my local CVS, that the community was heavily relied upon, and they dealt with massive shoplifting issues as well, and yet, was still open early on in the pandemic until the “peaceful protests” came through in early June. Constant shoplifting needs to be a prosecutable crime, otherwise, criminals will become more brazen and the communities will suffer being left with nothing. This must stop. Our communities need it to.
    FYI- Most shoplifters, don’t live in the community they are victimizing. Some, come from across the bay, to San Francisco, and shoplift from our stores. *note: some of the hardest hit stores are close to BART and other means of transportation.

    Sincerely,
    Frustratedly, Disappointed Citizen

  5. Rational/irrational and “ not gonna happen “, yet only solution , is to have police on site at the stores. Cost prohibitive on all points.
    Ross store at 4th/Market used to have a overtime cop there every day of the week for the express purpose of curtailing the loss. It’s always an “ all about the money honey “ issue.

  6. Proposition 47 is partly to blame. One can’t prosecute thefts under $950.00 in California since it passed in 2018

  7. 484(a)/490.5 P.C. is the current charge for petty theft. It is a crime and is still prosecutable. A misdemeanor in California.

    1. No.

      484(a)/490.5 hasn’t been the “current” charge for shoplifting (what this article is about) for 10 years.

      The current charge is 459.5, and 459.5(b) states, “Any act of shoplifting as defined in subdivision (a) shall be charged as shoplifting. No person who is charged with shoplifting may also be charged with burglary or theft of the same property.”

  8. No mention of the huge bust of a highly organized crime operation last October. When the city allows a stolen goods open air market to thrive at UN Plaza, it is complicit. It’s sickening.

  9. I think it is so insulting to.say people are stealing because of hard times. No people are stealing because they are criminals

  10. The people selling the stolen items across Mission street on the sidewalks should be stopped. They aren’t selling goods they bought. It’s ridiculous how callous they are and the police just walk by not saying anything. This blocks the sidewalk and the items they sell are from Walgreens!

  11. 1st Repeal Prop. 47 get it on the next State ballot for Repeal. 2nd Chesa Boudin and his constituents of incompetents are a farce of the Justice System. It’s such shame that these businesses that serve our community are the targets of systematic shoplifting theft. What’s even worse is that a large portion of these stolen goods are being sold right back to the community by sidewalk peddlers and at times at the same price as if you were to buy the product new. Just talk a walk around the corner from the Calle 24 office located on 24th and Capp St. Walk a few feet towards the BART station from the Calle 24 office and you will find all those items you needed that are missing from the store shelves. All those stolen goods are being sold openly out of suitcases in the open air. I overheard a conversation in Spanish where a buyer asked how much for jug of TIDE detergent. The street peddler replied “$7.00” then the buyer replied back “that is how much it cost in the store!” The street peddler then replied “well then how am I supposed to make a profit”. Once you could enjoy a great vegetarian dish at the restaurant Gracias Madre on 18th and Mission. Sit in the sidewalk patio enjoying the beauty of the Mission, but now there is a thieves market right outside the restaurant doors. It was featured on the local news, a story about how a thieve was selling a pair of stolen French bulldog puppies there at that location. It has gotten so bad that the city had to bring out portable toilets to accommodate the buyers, sellers and drug addicts that congregate there now. Who wants to eat next to that!? I feel for the Owner of Gracias Madre. Finally don’t forget the biggest sidewalk thieves market open every Saturday morning located on 15th & 14th and Mission. Was your vehicle broken into on Friday night or your vehicle was broken into that Saturday Day, was your bike stolen, was your garage broken onto. Most likely you will find your stole items there. No Joke! I’ve seen cars pull up with people trying to sell clothes from ROSS with all the tags and security tags still on them. I’ve seen people pull up with freshly stolen backpacks filled with tourist goodies, cameras, sunglasses, laptop, clothes and people gathered around like opportune vultures asking”how much this, how much for that” but get there early because the vendors in “La Pulga” get in on the hustle too.
    Yes, there is a problem a huge problem of theft and crime here in the Mission and something has to change. Be that change by not buying stolen goods in the Mission. Be more than a witness. Be that change by restoring morals, values and principles of doing the right thing and supporting all businesses that serve our community.

  12. Almost a year ago the Walgreens at Van Ness and Market closed due to theft. This Walgreens was extensively used but every time we went in, we witnessed shoplifting and we always felt in danger. Maybe it’s time that San Francisco does something to help these businesses. Now you can’t even go into Safeway at Church and Market to buy toiletries without having to have someone unlock a cabinet.
    It should not be up to the stores to protect their people it should be up to the city and the police and DA. We need a new DA.

  13. This type of anti-business policy to ignore such crimes is what the progressive DA Boudin ran his campaign on and won in SF, calling prosecuting petty crimes a “war on the poor.”

    As with most progressive policies, there are a slew of unintended consequences — here the most detrimental being the loss of important neighborhood businesses. But in general, these naive “progressive” ideals such as non-prosecution of criminals, leads to the closing of countless businesses and the loss of the services, community, and jobs they provide.

  14. I was a WG employee for 10 years. Saw a lot of shoplifting in those years..let it all happen. We were taught not to confront the thief. By the time police showed up, thief was long gone. Don’t bother trying to watch the cameras..half the time they didn’t even work. Same woman used to come in every Saturday night, fill her purse with make up items and just walk on out. Assistant store manager that night stopped her..got hell for it when Store manager came in the next morning. Basically, their policy is..hold the door open for them. Absolutely crazy.

  15. Used to 666pc. Petty with a prior. If you had certain prices in your past a new theft would be charged as a felony. Prop 47 took that away.

  16. When you report that someone was arrested, you should also report whether they remained in custody or were released immediately.

    My assumption, with this DA, is that they’ve just been released immediately.

  17. >, according to their posts on Reddit

    Is using anonymous unverified reddit posts as sources acceptable journalistic practice?

    (Curious, not trying to start a fight).

  18. This has been going on for over a year at the minimum at Broadway and Polk Walgreen’s. It’s open season there depsite the presence of SF cops and private security hired by the store. I have personally witnessed dozens of thefts by thieves that walk out fully loaded with various items (Reese’s cups are popular) laughing at clerks who are half the size of the criminals. More than one Walgreen’s has been closed due to rampant crime. It is non-stop and surprising that no one there has not been hurt. And not every theft I have seen is noticed by staff and most of the ones who see theft don;t report to the cops because nothing will happen. The stats reported by the city are probably off by 75%.

  19. Shop lifting is a disease…..stealing is a disease….what do people not see…walgreens wants to protect their employees from the stealers. Because they cause harm…they would kill innocent people for there habit…..its sad to say…why do you have to steal..why can you not work to support your familys…We walgreens employees…have to work and we have to work through the pandemic….whats wrong with you all the steal…we are not open for your addition…we are opening for the needs of people that have a life and need the health obtions to live…way to much drama fir what that man did to our store he wads robbing and using contifit money..and cips called and now hes dead…was that really.really worth it to lose your life over…get a life thats all i can say…just leave the retail and pharmacies. Alone..it would make for a better and safe world…i work for a walgreens and im happy there..i just wish the world would a brightet way to be…if you want to get into trouble soooo be it…i was not to be…and i do just fine…

  20. Walgreens on 23rd and mission has had a police officer stationed there inside for months. That certainly helped reduce theft.

  21. The title of this article does not fit the contents. There is nothing to indicate what this ‘team’ is or is not doing, or who they are, or what progress they are making: Explanation as to from where and why people are stealing is not information as to prevention or prosecutorial response. Oddly, the suggestion that this is COVID activated is factually inaccurate as this has been going on for years and is well evidenced by, at least, the warehouse bust last fall. The DDA is uninformed and the author has not done due diligence. The issue is once the thieves are caught, what consequences is the DA implementing to mitigate recidivism and employ restorative justice? The article is silent on the issue. It would help if we could all just get real and quit playing politics with our lives as this author is clearly blowing smoke for the DA. Too bad – it was an opportunity to inform us of progress or to solicit opportunities for suggestions.

  22. Just got a letter in the mail today that my local Walgreens at the corner of bush and Van Ness will be closing on 17 March. The nearest one, on post and Franklin, is also closing on that day. Now my nearest Walgreens is on Polk Street, more than a half mile walk away, with hills both up and down.

  23. The manager of the now closed Van Ness Market Walgreens told me how bad the shoplifting had gotten….and collapsed crying in my arms.

    This lady had previously successfully managed the Walgreens near the Powell Street cable car turn around.

    If they’ve not yet closed that Walgreens, wanna bet it’s to pander to the tourists?

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