Breaking Point: SF Suffers Highest Rate of Car Break-Ins Compared to Atlanta, DC, Dallas, LA

Breaking Point: SF Suffers Highest Rate of Car Break-Ins Compared to Atlanta, DC, Dallas, LA

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit rode along with undercover police officers, interviewed top law enforcement officials, and obtained and analyzed court and police records to find out why car burglaries remain one of the most prolific crimes in San Francisco

Investigative Unit

In the heart of San Francisco, alongside popular tourist attractions, car break-ins have spiked nearly 200% since last year, turning visitors into victims and creating what some business owners say is an economic crisis. On average, the city suffers about 74 car break-ins per day, according to police records for the month of October. The District Attorney’s Office lays blame with police, pointing to the fact that officers only make arrests in less than two percent of car break-in cases. The Police Department, however, says whenever arrests are made, the District Attorney releases offenders without substantive penalties, making car break-ins an easy crime for organized gangs.  

Watch Part 2:

In San Francisco, thieves get away with car break-ins more than 98 percent of the time, according to District Attorney’s Office. Bigad Shaban rides along with SFPD undercover officers to find out what needs to happen to finally put the breaks on car break-ins.

(Aired: Dec. 2, 2021)

Watch Part 1:

Car break-ins are a huge concern in San Francisco for locals, and tourists. They're relentless, expensive and seem unmanageable. But why and who’s to blame? The police and the DA pointing fingers at each other. Senior Investigative Reporter Bigad Shaban takes us for a ride in the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods.

(Aired Nov. 16, 2021)

San Francisco Car Break-Ins

Note: Annual data reflects car break-ins recorded between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31. Source: San Francisco Police Department.
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

The northeast part of San Francisco remains the hardest hit in the city by the latest wave of car burglaries. After a dip in break-ins at the start of the pandemic, coinciding with fewer tourists in town, smash and grabs have since skyrocketed 187%, compared to last year, in the city’s Central Police District, which includes Union Square, China Town, and Fisherman’s Wharf.  However, 2020 was not a typical year. The pandemic kept tourists out of San Francisco, so car break-ins were at record lows. But even when comparing current car burglary rates to pre-pandemic levels, smash and grabs along the city’s most popular tourist attractions are still up 9% this year. Unsuspecting tourists who leave suitcases, laptops, and cameras, inside their vehicles, are often the main targets, losing their valuables in just seconds.

In San Francisco, thieves get away with car break-ins more than 98 percent of the time, according to the District Attorney’s Office.  To find out why, the Investigative Unit rode along with Police Sergeant Matt Para, who heads a team of undercover officers tasked with trying to catch those committing car break-ins.  The city's hardest hit areas also happen to be the biggest tourist attractions, like Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square. 

“The individuals that are committing these crimes are, in fact, organized right now,” said Parra. “They know exactly what to do with the items when they retrieve the stolen goods. They have individuals that they sell these items to.

The criminals are known for their speed. The crime takes less than ten seconds. Unless police are already in the area, it’s almost impossible to stop a car break-in.

NBC Bay Area spoke to local business owners on Beach Street who have witnessed up to 10 car break-ins per day. 

“I mean it's hard not to see them” said David Berby, owner of several San Francisco businesses including Cioppino’s restaurant and several gift shops. “All you have to do is stay outside for ten minutes, you'll see one.”  

"San Francisco has become completely lawless," said David Berby, who owns 29 businesses, including restaurants and retail shops, in 11 cities across California. "I think it speaks loudly of the leadership of the city officials."

A few months ago, Andrew England, who owns an art gallery in the area, started jotting down vehicle information and license plate numbers of all the getaway vehicles he’s seen speed away after a break-in. “I'm worried that we're getting too accustomed to it and we're almost allowing it to happen,” he said. Once he used up several piles of post-its, England created a digital database on his computer for all the different vehicles he’s witnessed take part in car break-ins. "It certainly seems like it's an organized crew. I see a lot of the same vehicles,” he said, noting that the license plates change frequently, but the cars are often the same. 

“It's also heartbreaking to think that this is a visitor's first or last impression of a great city,” said Samantha Davis, who owns and manages several retail properties on the block.

“We want visitors and locals who come down to the wharf to feel safe here,” she said. “It's unfortunate that it feels like, sometimes, city leaders aren't looking out for the same thing.”

"This isn't a topic that we look forward to talking about, but it comes to a point where we feel we have to do because it's become so prevalent and there aren't a lot of measures being taken to prevent it," said Samantha Davis, who owns and manages several retail properties at Fisherman's Wharf.

Some local business owners fear the problem may be even worse than police data shows, noting that many break-ins go unreported.

“A lot of the folks that unfortunately get … broken into, they have a tight schedule, and they may be leaving that same day or the next day, and they don't have time to go through the process to file a report and go through all of that,” said Jeff Sears, owner of the Blazing Saddles bike rental shop. 

“Those people are going back to wherever they're from, and the story they're going to tell about the city is, is that, ‘hey, we were parked in a very public spot in the middle of the day, we were 20 feet away from our car having lunch, and we watched it get broken into,'” said Brian Huber, who owns a Segway rental shop.

Brian Huber, who runs a Segway touring business in Fisherman's Wharf, says car break-ins are scaring away tourists. "The story they're going to tell about the city is, 'hey, we were parked in a very public spot in the middle of the day, we were 20 feet away from our car having lunch, and we watch our car get broken into.'"

“San Francisco has become completely lawless,” said David Berby, who owns several retail shops and restaurants in 11 cities across California. “It's really breathtaking. I mean, I don't see it anywhere in any of the cities that we conduct business in.”

So far this year, 19,270 car break-ins have been reported between January 1 and November 29 - up by more than 2,000 thefts since the end of October. That’s about 20 for every 1,000 people in the city, which is well above rates in Atlanta (13), Washington, DC. (10), Houston (7), and Los Angeles (6), according to data obtained and analyzed by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.

“We're stuck here because of a lot of finger pointing,” said Davis. “Whether it's between the SFPD, the DA's office, back and forth -- and it gets frustrating to hear officials say they can't do anything about it.”

Business owners at Fisherman's Wharf say many local shops are being pushed to the breaking point as their customers are targeted by car break-ins. "There are several landmark businesses that have been here almost a hundred years that won't be coming back," said Jeff Sears, owner of Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals and Tours, which boasts three locations in San Francisco.

“We look at the numbers, but the numbers don't tell the whole story either, said Michael Redmond, San Francisco’s Assistant Police Chief.  Redmond oversees the department’s Investigations Bureau and all 10 of the city’s police districts.

“We're starting to see some strides and make some strides around car break ins,” said Redmond. “But … it's not a place where we want to be as a department.” 

Redmond says while SFPD has increased patrols in the Central District, he still agrees with the findings of an outside consultant, hired by SFPD, which found the department of 1,703 officers still needs an additional 473 cops to adequately patrol the city.

“Right now, we don't have enough officers on the street,” he said. “I believe the police department is putting the resources we have in the areas where we see continuous problems.”

While the Investigative Unit joined Parra on his beat in San Francisco's Central District, one of his fellow officers radioed in an update about someone he spotted. 

He's casing cars -- casually casing a Prius,” said the undercover officer.

A few minutes later, police see a man jump out of a vehicle, break a car window, and remove bags from inside. The police radio blares, “Move in! Move in! Uniforms moving in!”

Police rush the suspect, not giving him time to get back into the waiting car.  The getaway vehicle speeds off, leaving the suspect alone.  A foot chase begins down Kearny Street from the Embarcadero.  Police catch and arrest the suspect a couple of blocks away on Francisco Street.

The arrested man is later identified as Lafayette Davenport. He’s only 26 years old but has a lengthy criminal record.  Court documents, reviewed by the Investigative Unit, show Davenport was already awaiting trial on two other car break-in charges earlier this year, and late last year he was convicted of taking part in four separate robberies, two of them involved a gun.  He was also caught with heroin and cocaine that officers say he intended to sell.

According to former prosecutors, Davenport could have faced more than 11 years in state prison, but instead, he served just 8 months at the local jail and wasn’t required to take part in any type of rehabilitative program – like job training or counseling.

"We have a certain amount of prolific offenders that are out there committing the crimes on a day-to-day basis," said Michael Redmond, Assistant Chief of the San Francisco Police Department. "If they're held accountable and there's a consequence, we'll see even more of a drop."

Over the last two years at least 14 people have been arrested three or more times for committing car break-ins in San Francisco, according to police records. Of those, one person alone has been arrested 18 times and is currently on “supervised custody” with an ankle monitor.

“As we move on some of these cases on some of the prolific burglars, it will be interesting to see how those cases end up in court, because one of the challenges is we have a backlog in our court system right now because of COVID,” said Redmond, adding, “Right now, we don't see a lot of consequences for doing it.” 

In addition to clearing the backlog, Redmond believes courts need to hand out tougher penalties in order to reduce the prevalence of car break-ins.

“There has to be a stiffer consequence,” said Redmond, who noted those tougher penalties should be coming from the District Attorney’s Office.

There’s an average of 74 car break-ins a day in San Francisco, according to crime data crunched by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit. Senior Investigative Reporter Bigad Shaban breaks it down.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin ran for office on a campaign promising to end mass incarceration in San Francisco. Since June, the Investigative Unit has been asking Boudin for an interview to explain how he decides to either prosecute, drop or reduce criminal charges against suspects. Boudin has repeatedly declined to be interviewed, and instead, his office provided statement, pointing the finger back at police, saying SFPD only makes an arrest in 1.6% of all car break-in cases.

According to the statement, the DA’s office files charges in 77% of all cases it receives. 

Boudin’s office, however, didn't provide exact figures of how many cases that represents, nor did it provide information on the specific types of charges initially filed against defendants, and how often prosecutors struck plea deals with defendants, allowing them to plead to lesser charges.

The District Attorney’s Office statement also noted that “81% of auto burglary prosecutions resolved in 2021 have resulted in a conviction and of those, 100% resulted in a sentence that involved incarceration.”

Sources, however, including current and former prosecutors at the District Attorney’s Office told NBC Bay Area that while charges may be filed for 77% of the cases, many of those charges are eventually dropped or dismissed. As for convictions resulting in jail time, those same sources told the Investigative Unit the “100% incarceration rate” reference is misleading because for nearly all those defendants, sentences only include time already served, which often is just the couple of hours it took to book the suspect after the arrest. Those types of sentences reflect a much more lenient practice than what the state allows, which is up to three years in jail for committing a car burglary.

Upon receiving the statement from the District Attorney’s Office, the Investigative Unit requested more details on the specific charges and sentences that have been handed down for car break-ins, however, a spokesperson said they are unable to provide that.

Last week, Boudin invited reporters to a press conference to hear his plan for combatting crime in San Francisco.   NBC Bay Area Senior Investigative Reporter Bigad Shaban questioned Boudin about criticism he’s facing, centering on the notion his office has been too lenient on criminals.

Well, if people don’t feel safe in San Francisco, we have work to do,” Boudin responded “And we will do whatever it takes to make people feel safe.”

Assistant Police Chief Michael Redmond also attended the press conference and addressed that issue.

“There has to be consequences, if there’s no consequences, we’re going to continue to see things continue to happen, and we have to partner to make sure that especially the people out there committing on numerous occasions that are held accountable," said Redmond.

The Investigative Unit then directed the question back to the District Attorney, asking:

“So, Mr. Boudin, he’s talking about a lack of consequences, sir. It’s your office that’s responsible for doling out those consequences. What do you have to say?”

District Attorney Boudin never gave an answer.  Instead, a spokesperson stepped to the microphone and announced the press conference was going to move on to another question.

Regardless of who’s to blame, San Francisco streets still glisten with broken glass with an average of 74 smash and grabs in the city each day. Even if police happen to be close by when a car is broken into, there’s no guarantee officers will be able to keep up with the criminals.

During our ride along with Parra, officers managed to follow one getaway car for about 15 minutes, but after the suspects ran through several red lights, the officers eventually lost them. 

In San Francisco, police aren't allowed to speed after cars in cases involving non-violent crimes like burglaries. That's to avoid putting innocent bystanders in harms way. But whatever the roadblock – there are still new victims every day.  

Laura Hudson and her family were visiting from Florida when their rental van was broken into. All her kids’ luggage, pajamas, even stuffed animals were taken.

I'm really disappointed, like this has kind of put a big, huge damper on my trip that I was looking so much forward to,” said Hudson said.  “What I just said to my husband - I said, ‘You know, that just ruins my whole feeling, [puts a] bad taste in my mouth for San Francisco.’"

The number of travelers flying into San Francisco is still down about 45 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to a spokesperson for the San Francisco International Airport. Business owners say the sluggish tourism market is also having a trickle-down effect on the business community.

While San Francisco continues to grapple with the global health crisis, some say rampant crime is creating an economic crisis.

There are many businesses on the brink right now and if things don't change fast, they're going to fail and not come back,” said Jeff Sears, who has been running his San Francisco bike rental business for more than three decades. There are several landmark businesses that have been here almost a hundred years that won't be coming back.”

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