San Francisco Struggles With ‘Smash-and-Grab' Auto Burglaries

The nearly 26,500 reported burglaries have also become a flashpoint in the debate over Proposition 47 that reduced some nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

SAN FRANCISCO — Across the street from San Francisco's main jail, business is booming at Auto Glass Now where more than a dozen motorists show up on an average day to replace windows broken by thieves.

"It's been insane," said Julio Lara, the shop's manager who says nearby competitors are busy as well. "It's nonstop."

San Francisco is in the grips of an auto burglary epidemic. No other place in the country — not New York, Chicago or Los Angeles — had as many "smash-and-grabs" per capita as San Francisco did last year.

"We have an auto burglary problem in San Francisco," then-Police Chief Greg Suhr said in October after a California Highway Patrol officer's personal gun was stolen from his car.

The gun was recovered, but the burglaries have grown far beyond a simple annoyance. They are fueling a bitter political feud between the city's police department and district attorney's office, who blame each other for not doing enough. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee recently put some of the blame on local judges, who he said needed to get tougher on those arrested for the break-ins.

"Now is not the time for one branch of government to be pointing the finger at one another," Presiding Judge John K. Stewart said in a statement late last month. "We should be able to work together to remedy these problems."

The nearly 26,500 reported burglaries have also become a flashpoint in the debate over Proposition 47 that reduced some nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. There were 19,871 reported auto burglaries in 2014, almost double from the 10,369 in 2011 — and not everyone calls the police when they wake up to a burglarized vehicle.

Police say they believe many suspects are affiliated with organized gangs or are among the city's ubiquitous homeless, but they struggle to stem a crime that afflicts tourist haunts and neighborhoods throughout the city.

Investigators say experienced burglars use homemade hammers to quickly smash auto windows and clear out the contents of a vehicle in minutes. Thieves make off with a variety of goods, including electronics, gym bags and loose change. On nearly 60 occasions last year, guns were stolen from burglarized cars — and several of them belonged to law enforcement officials.

One of those guns belonged to a federal agent, who had his car broken into in June 2015. The next month, a homeless man living in the country illegally and recently released from jail is alleged to have found the gun under a bench on a San Francisco pier and used it to fatally shoot Kate Steinle, 32, as she enjoyed an evening walk with her father on July 1.

Last year, an Oakland muralist also was killed with a handgun stolen from a vehicle in San Francisco. And so were a Canadian tourist in Golden Gate Park and a yoga teacher on Marin County hiking trail.

San Francisco's police say combatting auto burglaries is a priority, but the department needs more officers. Before he resigned as chief last month, Suhr said he was hopeful 200 vacancies will be filled shortly. Suhr also created a special investigative unit, beefed up patrols throughout the city and ordered every burglarized auto dusted for fingerprints.

"Evidence has shown this increase is due in part to repeat offenders," Suhr said in a written order last month to all officers.

The stepped-up law enforcement attention has resulted in several recent arrests and convictions of prolific burglars, including Shawn Gibson who was sentenced in February to 5 years and 8 months in prison after he was convicted of breaking into 15 autos. Officials are hopeful the burglary rates will show a decline at the end of the year.

Police are making arrests in about 2 percent of the reported burglaries. The district attorney's office says 80 percent of the arrests end in some form of punishment for the suspect.

The San Francisco police officers' union has run radio ads blaming Proposition 47 for the spike and noting that District Attorney George Gascon helped draft the law. Gascon's office counters that other California cities haven't experienced the same increase in auto burglaries.

Proposition 47 is not to blame for the surge, district attorney spokesman Max Szabo said. The measure made a theft of valuables worth less than $950 a misdemeanor. Previously, a felony could be charged for stealing goods with a value of $400.

The district attorney, the governor and other supporters of Proposition 47, which also turned some felony drug crimes into misdemeanors, say the new law provides treatment instead of incarceration for drug addicts and the mentally ill, saving the state money by reducing the prison population.

Whatever the reason for the break-ins, frustration is mounting — at community meetings and repair shop waiting rooms.

One recent Thursday, Lauren Smith was waiting at Auto Glass Now for her Lexus SUV's rear window to be replaced - at a cost of $350 out of her own pocket

The day before, someone had broken the window while Smith was shopping at a grocery store. A witness chased off the man before he could steal anything.

Smith was particularly galled that the window was a new one — a replacement for one smashed outside her apartment in tony Pacific Heights a few months ago.

"There should be something the police can do," Smith said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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