The Yves St. Laurent in Union Square is partially boarded up — a sign of the times. Photo by Yujie Zhou

Despite advocates’ pleas to ban cars from Great Highway or JFK Drive, it was Union Square that has been declared car-free. Silly advocates: If they wanted vehicles verboten from Great Highway or JFK, they should’ve organized a smash-and-grab robbery. If opportunistic mobs motored off with armfuls of de Koonings, there’d be no damn cars on JFK, lickety split.

That’s how it went down at Union Square after organized groups, like Visigoths of old, on Nov. 19 swarmed high-end retail shops and made off with armfuls of Louis Vuitton purses and other luxury items. And that accomplished what years of community process could not: The pedestrianization of Union Square. 

But wait, there’s more: The horse may be out of the barn, a $30,000 purse clutched in its teeth, but San Francisco has spared no expense reinforcing the barn door. Union Square now has enough law-enforcement personnel on the ground to rival the closing scenes of Ghostbusters. The notion of hordes of thieves hitting the same spot again is dubious, especially after you’ve barricaded the streets. But, if they were foolish enough to try, it’d be akin to attempting to rob a police station.  

But wait, there’s even more: The same mayor who spurned a free Muni program, in part because it would purportedly benefit “our most affluent riders,” is now touting free parking in city garages for shoppers who drive to Union Square to buy Louis Vuitton purses. The cost will be borne by our transit agency and Recreation and Parks Department — a gift estimated at up to $645,000 for the former, and $345,000 for the latter

So, San Francisco’s response has been reactionary in every sense of the word. But here’s the rotten cherry on the rancid sundae: On Nov. 30, Donald Trump, predictably, followed the displays of security theater and boarded-up windows and breathless nationwide media furor — and, of course, videos of Black people committing crimes — with a broadside against Democrats and “their cities.” And, naturally, that most Democratic of cities, San Francisco, came in for the most opprobrium. 

The Union Square Hermès has seen better days. Photo by Yujie Zhou.

“There has never been such a thing that has happened in our Country,” wrote the man whose supporters on Jan. 6 smashed and grabbed the Capitol, in his strange, randomly capitalized version of English. 

“Some chains are closing most of their stores, it is all not even believable,” he wrote in a statement last week. 

One week again and, I will rule the North America! The Canada and the United States even won’t be something with that! Oh, sorry — that wasn’t Trump, it was dialog from the Canadian Ninja comic book my roommate and I scored in college. They both read like jarringly poor translations; my mistake. 

Fact-checking Trump is a tedious endeavor; his communiques are aimed at people who care little for facts. But let the record show that smash-and-grab robbers also hit Walnut Creek and San Jose, local bergs that do not harbor a reputation for demonstrative liberal politics or coddling criminals. They also, in recent weeks, hit North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and elsewhere. 

This isn’t a Democratic problem, it’s a “where the money is” problem; there are very few non-Democratic large cities, and even fewer places espousing some form of “Frontier Justice” where you can also drop by a Louis Vuitton outlet. And while the brazenness of these crimes is a (telegenic) shock, a disproportionate number of the perpetrators in San Francisco and elsewhere have been caught. It’s organized crime, but it’s not Moriarty-organized. It’s hard not to foresee more and more robbers being tracked down and arrested after the fact as their accomplices (and everyone’s ubiquitous electronic devices) give them up. 

But this isn’t about the ex-president saying whatever he wants to say. It’s about San Francisco making it too easy for him. San Francisco has markedly failed to have an honest debate about what is the best way to make our city both safe and just. And in failing to have that debate, while scoring cheap local political points by propping up simplistic and statistically bereft claims of this city’s demise, we have ceded the floor to grifters and enriched our bad-faith opponents. 

Our shared opponents.   

The transformation of Union Square into a police state looks a bit funny if you’re one of the many San Franciscans who’s had trouble getting even perfunctory service from the police department — when a Mission housing nonprofit this month called the cops to report a $40,000 burglary, it took the better part of two days for officers to even show up and take a report.

It also comes off a bit weird to the many cannabis businesses who’ve been preyed upon in this city and across the bay. They suffered losses far worse than those reported in Union Square, while receiving a fraction of the media coverage and little to no recourse from police. Video from a Nov. 16 San Francisco dispensary burglary, in fact, reveals three San Francisco police patrol cars and their occupants watching as the crime unfolds and failing to intervene

The Union Square hysteria and the video of the cops’ non-action at the dispensary, which occurred three days apart, may finally have punctured an increasingly untenable status quo: It is simply no longer viable for this city’s most powerful players to calculatedly allow every bill for all of San Francisco’s myriad problems to be charged to District Attorney Chesa Boudin. 

You may believe Boudin is performing adequately or you may not. You may feel his pending June recall election is a calculated screwjob or you may be looking forward to it. But the twin images of multi-jurisdictional smash-and-grab robberies and police casually allowing a business to be pillaged ought to put to rest the notion that he’s some manner of Keyser Soze and the nexus for all of San Francisco’s myriad crime woes. 

Boudin deserves our scrutiny. He’ll get plenty of it in the months leading up to June. But we must render unto Boudin what is Boudin’s: The District Attorney is only responsible for so much. 

Last year in San Francisco, police cleared

only 1 in 16 reported property crimes.

Reported property crimes

Crimes are not cleared

Crimes are cleared

60,000

2011: clearance

rate of 9.5%

50,000

40,000

2020: clearance

rate of 6.2%

30,000

20,000

10,000

0

2012

2015

2018

2011

2013

2014

2016

2017

2019

2020

Year

Last year in San Francisco,

police cleared only 1 in 16

reported property crimes.

Crimes are not cleared

Crimes are cleared

2011: clearance

rate of 9.5%

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2020: clearance

rate of 6.2%

2019

2020

0

10

20

30

40

50

60

Reported property crimes (1000s)

Crime clearance data from OpenJustice. Graph by Will Jarrett.

Mayor London Breed has benefited no small amount from Boudin becoming a catch-all punching bag, and his ongoing irradiation has harmed her political enemies, while she has remained oddly insulated. But the problems San Franciscans are most likely to complain about, including street conditions and homelessness, are issues under the aegis of this city’s strong mayor, not its D.A. The city cannot prosecute its way out of homelessness or filth.

The D.A., also, cannot control the city’s police department; that’s also the mayor’s dominion. 

San Francisco Police Department statistics reveal that violent crime is down. Quality-of-life crimes, however — burglaries, auto break-ins — remain ubiquitous. But, here’s the thing: They’re not getting solved. In the most recent year, the San Francisco Police Department recorded a clearance rate, meaning an arrest or otherwise, in just 6.2 percent of reported property crimes. 

That means 15 of 16 reported property crimes were not cleared. And that means the rancor over what the D.A. did or did not charge regarding property crimes is a debate over the one case in 16 that came his way. By the way, this is not a new development: A 2016 paper by the Public Policy Institute of California noted that San Francisco police have the lowest arrest rate in the state by a wide margin.  

Should the D.A. be on the spot for his charging decisions? Of course. He has not consistently done an adequate job of this. As we have noted before, he has not, in fact, done an adequate job of explaining what he sees as the overall role of a prosecutor and how San Franciscans needn’t trade safety to alleviate decades of carceral injustice. 

But focusing on the one case that makes it to the D.A. to the exclusion of the 15 that didn’t seems farcical. No honest discussion about crime and punishment (and politics) in San Francisco can do this. And, in lieu of honest discussions, shills and bad actors have filled the void. 

San Francisco has, once again, enabled the oldest play in the book: Manufactured outrage against whatever it is San Francisco is doing, be it banning Happy Meals or allowing non-citizens to vote or letting gay people get married or ceasing to measure success in the D.A.’s office by how long people can be locked away. 

Playing footsie with fascists regarding criminal justice matters is ill-advised: The GOP is, once again, claiming that only it can fix it. Only it is the party of law and order and accountability, and Democrats and “their cities” are bastions of lawlessness. 

The preferred “solution” for the GOP would allow police to act with impunity and prosecutors to revert to racially disparate mass incarceration mode while doing nothing to instill or mandate the effective systems of police work that are, evidently, sorely lacking. 

That would be the worst of all words. But, truth be told: Some version of that is how things are already going, for the vast majority of the nation. And that’s how it’s been for many, many years. 

It is all not even believable. 

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Follow Us

Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

Join the Conversation

30 Comments

  1. What is especially galling to me about the flood of police lolling around with their cellphones and cups of coffee at Union Square is that so few wear protective masks.

    Like the mayor who habitually parties down during a pandemic that has killed almost 800,000 in the US alone (and with Covid mutating and becoming more easily transmissible), they flaunt their exceptionalism. Bullies! Potential murderers!

    1. Outdoor COVID transmission is incredibly rare. Requiring vaccines is certainly more effective than mask wearing outside.

  2. A sideshow comment: “years of community process” – Reality check: Rose Pak didn’t want Stockton St. closed. Then Central Subway construction closures hit and Covid after that.

    1. Rose Pak was not an elected official. She was a Power Broker. The Subway was not a necessity. Better Muni service was the answer. Special Busses from N Beach to the Stadium and Train station would have solved the problem in my opinion.

  3. The preferred solution for most San Franciscans would be good governance in the form of a District Attorney that was more interested in fighting crime than racial justice (which certainly matters) and a Mayor/Board of Supervisors that put a clean and safe City above political fortunes. Donald Trump may use San Francisco as a poster child for the policies his supporters find cringe worthy, but he is neither running San Francisco, nor prosecuting the criminals who act as if there is no penalty to their bad deeds. Trump is a distraction and a deflection.

    The ship that is San Francisco has entered some very rocky waters in recent years. The people of San Francisco deserve leaders who will guide it to a safe harbor before she sinks.

  4. You can say all this till the cows come home. Nobody except the most radicalized believe what you are saying (And these folks don’t decide elections except in the most partisan of bubbles like for instance San Francisco). You are essentially telling people across the Nation to not believe their lying eyes. That is rarely a successful tactic to use. Rather than blame everyone except yourselves on the left, why not accept the failures, reflect on the failures, address the failures and change your ideas? Because it is not our eyes that are lying and we as Americans are not gullible enough to think that it’s our eyes lying to us. As a moderate centrist I will say this to you:

    You folks on the left better start listening to us because we decide elections and it would be horrific if your hubris, arrogance, and cognitive dissonance created an environment in which Trump in all of his horribleness (a horribleness which is incredibly immense) is actually seen by many to be the lesser of two evils (I would never stand with Trump but many many moderates might). You folks should really listen to the warnings people like me are giving you. Nobody is buying your excuses for your failures .. accept your failures.. and make policy adjustments and idealology adjustments necessary to stop the failing. Many of these far left policies are clearly not working and it would be politically beneficial for folks on the left to acknowledge this and look for different solutions. Before the failure happening right in front of all of our eyes become so distasteful and so angering that a terrible human like Trump starts to look like the lesser of two evils. When the middle decides in mass to vote against you, there will be no hope in most US states of the left being victorious politically in elections. With the left only being successful in the most partisan bubbles blue state bubbles in the United States. And what happens when crime and other issues and those areas become so horrible that those voters turn on you as well? Wake up before it’s too late

      1. Sad – but true. Hello: Need to get something clarified. Did AOC really say that “smash and grab” is not happening? That the Walgreens executives – whose stores were looted – are wrong. My Republican friends are on my case about it. As a lifelong progressive Democrat, I need to respond. Help me out here. Thanks. 🤨

    1. Exactly this! Progressives have some idealized theory about their policies and do not consider, nor admit that there are neff he stove consequences. Further, the focus on a single issue (such as “social justice”) to the neglect of many other issues (Alison Collins and the other SF School Board are the perfect example), is driving the rise of Trump’s power.

      The SF voting public needs to wake up to this fact.

  5. Thanks Joe. Always like your articles…you actually do research! Heh. Two things I might add 1)Pre covid, how many tourists come to SF? Hmm…20 million ‘targets’ added…makes the numbers of robberies look even lower .how many people commuted daily then into SF?..again…the numbers are pretty low…Our ‘per capita’ rates don’t reflect those huge influx numbers, hence are pretty low. 3) Why when the working class is under the worst duress following 2009 crash, and since the depression, have our violent crime rates nationwide dropped to less then half since 1990? People are less violent….which has never happened during distress, especially considering the betrayal of the ‘liberal’ party to not do one bit of relief to us…..I think us ‘scum’ are ‘sociologically’ ….pretty damn peaceful considering mass evictions, mass loss of full time jobs…rent and health costs skyrocketing since 2009….

  6. We should have a complete and honest discussion about crime. But hey, even Mission Local shies away from asking uncomfortable questions when it concerns connected members and groups that are part of the “City Family.” For example, is Jon Jacobo still employed by TODCO? Is Mr. Jacobo still part of the Latino Task Force and Calle 24? But I guess using Trump as a straw man is easier.

    1. Willy —

      We’ve written plenty about this subject. That’s not what this article is about, and your monomaniacal obsession with this matter and insistence on commenting on it in unrelated discussions long ago grew tiresome.

      JE

      1. thank you so much for this important article, joe.

        we should keep our these RWNJ reports of “crime” in perspective. what is more important, property or human lives??

        not sure why privileged folks’ whining about not being able to shop for their obscenely-priced LV handbags is worth a fart in the wind.

        keep up the great work!

  7. Great point on clearance rates. It stands to reason that some of the solution to getting more responsiveness to crime and higher clearance probably requires a net increase in public safety investment. Good luck getting the powers that be behind that.

  8. You make some good points, but your overly purple prose reads like a list of soundbites for the orange one. “Visigoths?” “Police state?” Union square has never been more pleasant, and most of us don’t cringe in terror at a few cops on a corner. Some of us actually say hi to them. It would be cool if you could focus on your more reasonably objective points and ease up on the emotionally manipulative rage bait. Also, love how your “boarded up shop” has one boarded window out of 10. Perfect analogy: some problems, multiplied by click-hungry media to a completely different narrative. Perhaps cut back on the coffee? Love, M.

  9. > It’s organized crime, but it’s not Moriarty-organized.

    I wish more people understood this. They hear “organized crime” and they think the Godfather. Sadly that includes many back east DSA types, including AOC.

    Re: Police clearance rates and their refusal to do their jobs, I tweeted about this to SFPD Chief Scott and for the next 72 hours I was replied to with sneers and insults over and over and over by 0 – 20 follower accounts, many of whom suggested it’s what SF deserves after voting in Boudin.

    Several of those accounts identified themselves as located back east, but not all, and it made me think of some bot army, or Mechanical Turk like opposition group.

    I’d like to see Boudin leave, but I think this low follower bot opposition group smelled like an anti-Boudin operation — I could be mistaken, their efforts were so poor, maybe it was an anti-anti-Boudin false flag 😉

  10. Why would anyone even want to come in to this city and shop? I go out of the city if I want to buy anything cause I’m tired of my car windows being smashed and utter lawlessness and rudeness.

    1. LMAO!!! its called taking the bus!
      These comments are wack yo! Ive lived here my whole life u guys are boring af!

  11. So trump made these stories about sf.
    They are as bad has everyone says. Nothing to do with trump. Fix it yourselves and quit blaming trump. I use to love “the city” but it was only special if you stayed in special places.

  12. “The transformation of Union Square into a police state looks a bit funny if you’re one of the many San Franciscans who’s had trouble getting even perfunctory service from the police department — when a Mission housing nonprofit this month called the cops to report a $40,000 burglary, it took the better part of two days for officers to even show up and take a report.” Maybe the police are sulking. That’s what Fran Lebowitz said today about the police in NYC, who also are not very present. She said more, but that was the gist. Police, in her opinion, are basically giving us an FU because we’re holding them to account.

  13. Hear hear. The SFPD and POA are a waste of oxygen, independent of whether our DA is any good or not. Until/unless the residents of San Francisco start demanding more from their police force, nothing is going to change.

    1. What about demanding more from our fellow citizens for once, and stop leaving it all up to the government entities to solve all our problems. We as citizens need to hold each other more accountable, many out here in the streets know bad actors and the people causing our societal problems, but instead of saying no that’s not right, they turn a blind eye. Cops and DA need a willing public to really make a substantial change, we don’t have that right now in some corners of our society.

  14. thank you for this important article, joe.

    we should push back against right-wing scaremonger tactics and reports of “crime” in favor of social justice and racial equity. who would value property over human lives?

    keep up the great work!

  15. Joe,

    Again, this was not my idea in the first place, it comes from Michael Hennessey.

    We should start by electing our Police Chief.

    Thataway you get a half dozen or dozen who knows running.

    They have a variety of platforms with a plentitude of planks.

    I’d vote for the one promising to institute permanent foot patrols in the neighborhoods where the POA forced out the Patrol Specials who are down to one or two licensees.

    I’d want drug testing every year for every cop.

    Things like that.

    Mike said it might take a couple of cycles to get a Chief who actually moved to fulfill their pledges but once you got a real reformer (they don’t have to have cop credentials, being a lawyer like Hennessey would be fine) …

    It all flows from some member of the BOS (Peskin?) beginning an effort to get the measure for this Charter Reform on the ballot.

    Go Niners!

    h.

  16. Campers,

    My own personal idea?

    I’d send around 100 of our emergency personnel to places like Tokyo and Istanbul and Mr. Vesuvius in an exchange program laid out like the Peace Corps for two year tours.

    Thataway, when you have a disaster after a few years you can have people flooding in from all over the world who know your plug and cistern layouts and the like.

    Go Niners!

    h.

  17. You people are unhinged. Look in the mirror and you will see what’s wrong with America. Keep giving Donald Trump your money for his legal fees and personal expenses. He will still go to prison for cheating on his taxes’ like any other big tax cheat would!

  18. OK – knew about the cops, knew about closing the square to cars – but free F**king parking? How do we protest our tax dollars being spent on the luxury retail army? Crime is down in my hood (Vis Valley) it must be Boudin’s fault.
    BTW – I’m one of the advocates to OPEN the Great Hwy M-F to cars. Plenty of walk/bike paths for the low number of weekday users. The road is necessary for westside traffic management. Weekend closure is fine. We can’t close everything for the enjoyment of Wealthy, Well Educated, White People (WWW).

Leave a comment
Please keep your comments short and civil. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published.