San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott goes through the latest crime statistics. Photo by Will Jarrett.

On Wednesday, Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott gave a press conference outlining the 2021 crime figures in San Francisco.

So, what was the headline? Did crime go up or down?

Well, it’s complicated.

Overall, San Francisco Police Department data shows that there was an increase in reported crimes of about 12 percent, compared to 2020. But crime levels are still significantly lower than they were before the pandemic began.

What’s more, the change in crime rate varies considerably depending on the type of crime we are looking at; some increased a lot, others fell and some stayed roughly the same as in 2020.

Scroll down to see a breakdown of how crime has changed over the past five years. We will go through the types of crime that have decreased (The Good), those that have increased (The Bad), and those where changes are a little more nuanced (The Complicated).

The Good

Recorded robberies – which are essentially thefts that involve force or intimidation – have declined every year for the past five years.

The steepest drop came in 2020, at the start of the pandemic – but the decline continued even in 2021.

In the past five years, recorded robberies dropped from 3,256 to 2,242. That’s a drop of almost a third.

Recorded instances of rape have also declined each year for the past five years.

As with robberies, there was a dramatic drop in 2020, and then a slight drop in 2021.

Recorded instances of rape have more than halved since 2017. There were 204 last year.

One important caveat to note is that all these SFPD figures are based on reported crimes, meaning crimes that were brought to the attention of the police.

“Statistics are what is reported to us,” said Scott. “We all understand that sometimes what we see in the statistics may not match your experience.”

The pandemic created changes to our behavior that could lead to changes in crime rates, but could equally lead to changes in how often crimes are reported. This means, for example, that it is difficult to say if instances of rape really fell as dramatically as the numbers imply. Research suggests that sexual violence actually got worse during the pandemic; it may be that the drop can be explained, in part, by fewer reports.

One crime that is typically reported extremely reliably is homicide. Which, regrettably, brings us to the types of crime that got worse in the past year.

The Bad

Homicides have risen over the past two years. There were 56 in the city in 2021.

Uncoincidentally, shootings have followed a similar pattern, falling off but then rising again in the last couple of years.

Car thefts also spiked in 2020, and remained elevated last year.

Increased homicides and gun crimes are part of a national pattern that started in 2020, although the root cause is not well understood.

“This is not just a San Francisco trend, it is a national trend,” said Scott. “We don’t really know the role the global pandemic plays in this. There are a lot of theories out there.”

Scott also noted that gun violence in the city started to trend downwards at the end of 2021 and has, so far, remained low at the start of 2022.

Scroll down to see the “Complicated” categories of crime; those in which increases or decreases have not been steady over the past couple of years.

The Complicated

Larceny – a category that covers most kinds of theft – decreased in 2020 and then rose significantly in 2021.

However, last year’s numbers are still far better than they were in 2019, before the pandemic.

The same pattern shows up with car break-ins

… and aggravated assaults (not including shootings, which we have already looked at).

A different pattern can be seen with burglaries. These shot up in 2020 and started to decline again last year.

However, there were still far more burglaries last year than in 2019.

Crime is trauma and the county offers different services, which can be found here. Victims of violent crime can also contact the Trauma Recovery Center at UCSF.

The SFPD’s data on crime can be found here.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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4 Comments

  1. As an expert in criminal (in)justice issues, I think the takeaway here for most people ought to be that crime rates are extremely complex, and the reasons why certain crimes may be committed in higher or lower numbers have more to do with the economy, income inequality, the high cost of housing, mental illness, substance use disorders, poverty, the impacts of a once in a century global pandemic, and a million other factors that I don’t have time to list here… and not very much with things like who the chief of police is, who the mayor is and who the DA is.

    The reason the death penalty does not deter homicide is the same reason the identity of a particular prosecutor does not deter crime – people are just not thinking to themselves, “oh, I better not kill this person because I could get the death penalty” or “gee, I should break into cars because it’s not that serious if I get caught because Chesa…” The vast majority of homicides are unplanned, and the vast majority of other crimes are committed because an opportunity arises, and someone takes it. The fact is, people have complicated reasons for doing the things they do, and not doing things they don’t do. I personally don’t break into cars or homes not because it’s illegal, but because I don’t need to, because I’m lucky, I have a job and a stable income and a place to live, and I don’t suffer from any major mental health problems or substance use disorder. People don’t not use drugs because drugs are illegal, they either use or don’t use because of a million other factors, pretty much none of which include the legality of a particular substance.

    All of this is to say, I think the data is really important and I know how sensitive an issue crime rates are in SF (and LA, NYC, Portland, Seattle, etc.) and there’s a ridiculously expensive and stupid DA recall happening over “crime rates”. But I hope people can look at this and be logical about it, and recognize that while the rates are important, and we all want to “feel” safe, recalling the duly elected county prosecutor is not the way to go about it.

  2. Will,

    That’s funny because I was just having a discussion with myself (I think) this morning about Shakespeare’s use of the semi-colon in Polonius’ farewell to Laertes in first act of Hamlet so there you go, cowboy.

    Apparently the minds of Oxford scholars and Ozarks mountains people think alike on a Sunday morning in San Francisco.

    Please give your views on the, ‘Oxford comma’.

    h.

  3. Thank you for the always excellent and nuanced reporting. An additional perspective that would be helpful to add to the conversation: how do the reported crime rates (relative to population) compare to other major cities?

  4. I agree with “grateful for data”. Great article.
    I would also like to understand better what is local and what is more widespread in terms of trends-now that 2021 can be looked at.
    This would help to understand better what is objective/constructive in solution-finding locally in San Francisco.

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