Car Break-Ins Decline Dramatically, Still High

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Reported automobile burglaries in February. Image: Courtesy of crimemapping.com

The San Francisco Police Department reported a 31 percent decrease in automobile break-ins from January to February, with the number of year-to-date thefts down 15 percent across the City.  All 10 police districts experienced fewer incidences. 

Municipal officials have been combating an automobile break-in epidemic that’s besieged the City over recent years. In 2017, 31,000 vehicles were broken into, an average of 85 a day, thrice more than seven years ago.  Dogpatch had been particularly hard hit.  In just one square block centered on Illinois and 22nd streets there were 195 vehicle break-ins last year.

The recent dramatic drop in incidences may have been prompted by changes in the way SFPD approaches vehicle crime. Last fall, Police Chief Bill Scott unveiled a plan for a General Crimes Investigation Unit to deal with burglaries, robberies and bicycle thefts. The unit consists of 35 officers plus 13 civilians in crime analysis positions. Creation of the corps followed disbandment of the Patrol Bureau Task Force, launched in 2015, which focused primarily on auto burglaries.  It made 223 arrests, but failed to stop the increase in incidents. By transferring task force personnel, as well as shrinking the narcotics unit, the Department added more officers to the streets to focus on deterrence. 

In February, District Attorney George Gascón requested that an additional $1 million be included in his office’s fiscal year 2018 budget to create an auto burglary task force, which would focus primarily on serial criminals. After two years of study, a 2016 Grand Jury, Auto Burglary in San Francisco, determined that street gangs were behind up to 80 percent of San Francisco’s car burglaries. Gascón also launched a vehicle theft tip line and reposted the DA Office’s private camera registry on its website, which allows citizens to list their security cameras to assist in investigations.

The task force, which would include new hires, would become part of the Crime Strategies Unit (CSU), created by Gascón in 2014. The CSU is comprised of investigators, prosecutors and analysts who take a data-driven approach to addressing chronic crime. If the task force is approved by the Board of Supervisors and Mayor, Gascón expects auto burglaries to drop by another 20 percent, as a result of prosecuting individuals committing most of the offenses and tying them to multiple cases. CSU expansion was recommended by the Grand Jury after interviewing police, prosecutors and outside experts.

Gascón co-sponsored a bill introduced by Senator Scott Wiener in the California State Senate to close a legal loophole they say has curbed prosecutions. Last year, of the miniscule 481 arrests police made for automobile burglaries, the DA’s Office prosecuted just 391. One reason even the small number of cases aren’t pursued is that prosecutors have to prove a car was locked to obtain a felony conviction. If a window is broken and an item stolen, but it can’t be proven the door was bolted, the offense is deemed a misdemeanor.

“Unfortunately, the fact that a victim’s window is broken does not, by itself, establish that the vehicle was locked,” explained a statement from Wiener’s office. “Judges sometimes require the DA to show that the car door was locked, which is difficult to do since a burglar can simply unlock the car door after breaking the glass.” Senate Bill 916 would add the term “when forced entry is used” to the felony description.

According to Jeff Cretan, Wiener’s communications director, the Senate Public Safety Committee will hold a hearing on the bill this spring, with a legislative vote unlikely until the fall. To garner support, the Board of Supervisors in January voted unanimously to support SB 916. State Assemblymen David Chiu and Phil Ting of San Francisco are co-sponsors.

According to the Grand Jury, the San Francisco Police Department’s shift toward community policing over the past decade may have reduced the efficacy of car break-in crimefighting efforts. “The loss of a central bureaucracy has hindered communication between stations,” stated the Grand Jury report. “A decentralized police force has been ineffective at curbing organized criminals who offend across districts.”

Potrero Hill and Dogpatch are covered by three stations:  Bayview, Mission and Southern. Scott has promised that General Crimes Investigation Unit officers, although assigned to individual precincts, will actively coordinate their efforts.

The DA’s Office and SFPD agree that pursuing serial offenders offers the best approach to reducing vehicle crime. The Grand Jury report noted that while some break-ins are crimes of opportunity – people down on their luck who violate the law on the spur of the moment – they make up less than 20 percent of incidences.

“Many are gang members,” states the report. “Some are armed and violent. They are highly proficient at counter surveillance and evading capture. They work in teams of two to five people, although different people from the same gang make up the teams on different days. They drive from location to location, breaking into dozens of parked cars in a day, at 30 seconds a break-in.”

Offenders are often known to law enforcement through other arrests. One of those was Carloz Paz, a San Francisco resident who was arrested in Fremont in December, accused of shipping stolen items from cars to Vietnam to be sold on the black market. Authorities seized $2 million in pinched electronics in the bust.

Gascón tipped police that Paz might be a fence two years ago, and cites the case as an example of his Office’s ability to identify such culprits.  Eight others were eventually arrested, including three San Francisco residents.

Max Szabo, DA’s Office spokesperson, admitted that short of putting officers on every street corner, catching random car burglars in the act isn’t feasible. “In making one arrest for one crime, you are not likely to be capturing the scope of the conduct,” he said. “It is likely they are responsible for more than one auto burglary, but it is only one they will be charged for.” Focusing on serial offenders, he said, would allow the DA’s Office to bring a stronger set of charges to court.

The DA’s Office disavowed the notion that Proposition 47, passed by voters in 2014, has had any effect on car break-ins. Under the Proposition some felonies were reduced to misdemeanors, and prison sentences shortened. According to Gascón, who pushed the ballot measure, treatment of auto burglaries was unchanged by it. In a press release, Gascon stated that individuals assigning blame for the epidemic of vehicle crime to Proposition 47 are “either misinformed or intentionally providing bad information.”