Auto burglaries down citywide, but up in Richmond

by Thomas K. Pendergast

Richmond District residents suspecting that there was a jump in auto burglaries this past year now have proof, as newly released SF Police Department (SFPD) statistics show a dramatic rise in the district, even as the rest of the city’s burglary rate dropped from
last year.

Citywide, auto burglaries so far in 2018 appear to be lower than in 2017 by 14 percent, according to a recent SF Chronicle report. In the Richmond District, however, reports from the Richmond Police Station show an opposite trend, as auto burglaries surged from January through August of this year, compared to that same time period last year. The spike did not, for the most part, come from rental cars.

The statistics from the SFPD show that although crime rates from March of 2017 were slightly higher in the Richmond than in 2018, by May they were almost even. However, in 2017 the rates started to decline at this time but this year the burglary numbers continued to rise, making August the month with the most burglaries.

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Alex Tanielian’s car is probably mentioned somewhere in those reports. A few months ago, he used a paid parking lot near 21st Avenue and Geary Boulevard to go to a restaurant with his three-year-old boy.

“I had just picked my son up from school and we were going to a restaurant,” Tanielian said. “He had his backpack and I had my work bag with me. I didn’t want to leave them in plain sight so I put them in the trunk. I locked the car and then we went into the restaurant.

“I had only paid for an hour on the meter so I decided to go back and put some more money in … and I noticed that my rear driver’s side window had been broken. I was kind of surprised because there was nothing visible in the car, but then I realized they had broken the window, cut my son’s car seat from the seatbelt and pulled down the seat … to go directly into the trunk.

“Then I realized somebody must have been watching the lot because there’s no way somebody would have gone straight to the trunk, unless they knew there was something in there,” he said.

And then there are those who witness auto burglaries periodically, like Miranda Waters, whose residence overlooks a parking lot behind stores on Geary Boulevard, between 18th and 19th avenues.

“I regularly call those in. That parking lot is notoriously bad for auto break-ins,” Waters said. “I was outside on my roof, which is often where I read, and I saw two young adults with hoods on looking through cars. Then, they smashed the back of a tourist’s vehicle and took a bunch of their luggage and ran off and got away in a dark charcoal or black SUV. They had a getaway driver ready to go and they sped off down 19th Avenue.”

She said the whole thing took less than two minutes, and she was out there when the tourists came back to their car.

“Over the last two years I’ve probably called both emergency and non-emergency dispatch maybe 10 times for auto breakins,” Waters said.

In an attempt to get a better handle on the situation, police and the SF district attorney’s office have unveiled a new program for private citizens to register their security cameras with the authorities to establish a database of auxiliary resources they can draw upon for information.

People can go onto a website and register, giving their names and the street address locations of the cameras in case police think a suspect has been working a certain area.

Max Szabo, a spokesperson for the D.A.’s office, said the goal is to create a map of various locations of possible camera footage, so they can contact the camera owners to investigate further if needed.

Szabo said the cameras will not be providing a “live feed” to police.

“We have, basically, a map of the cameras all across the City and we will work with the police. They’ll go to that person who owns the camera and say, ‘hey, would you be OK with us taking a look at the video camera footage to see if it captured this individual breaking into that car.’ It basically is a resource for us to produce further investigation that can yield evidence of additional criminal activity.”

Because there is no live feed, he said, “it’s definitely not a big brother thing. It’s only if there’s something after the fact. It’s much faster for us than sending a police officer out to those locations and hoping that somebody is home.”

Sgt. Greg Skaug is the head of the Richmond Station’s plain clothes unit, which is assigned to focus on auto burglaries.

“Three years ago, I noticed that fairly often we’d come across the guy who would park his car and then get out and walk the entire block, and check every car, nice and slow,” Skaug said.

“You can watch a guy like that and you watch him break in, and then you either run in or drive in and you hopefully grab him. Nowadays that’s very, very rare.

“What we normally see now is they drive a car with a dealer plate or it’s a stolen car, or  rental car,” he said. “They drive up, park right next to their target, they get out, smash the window, steal a bag, get back in the car and they’re gone within 10 or 15 seconds.”

If police do not catch the burglars right away, the chase probably will not last much longer.

“We don’t want to run in and try to take them into custody and cause them to floor it at 75 m.p.h. down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the park and hit a pedestrian. That’s the challenge.”

When the Richmond Station statistics are broken down, it turns out the bulk of the 2018 increase in auto burglaries is due to more non-rental cars being vandalized, rather than rental cars. While rental car burglaries fluctuated somewhat between 2017 and 2018, non-rental car burglaries skyrocketed.

Skaug said he can only guess as to why that might have happened. He notes that most of the rental car thefts are in the daytime, when tourists are out and about, while non-rental car burglaries tend to happen at night or in the early morning hours before sunrise and along residential streets.

“Those tend to be your homeless guy, or your drug addict, who is wandering around at 3 a.m. and they find a car on a random block and they see an opportunity and break in. Those guys are opportunists. They’re always on alert, so it’s a possibility we’re getting more of that.”

Mike Males, senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, speculated that the increase in auto burglaries in the Richmond indicates organized groups or crews might be involved, moving through and focusing on different parts of the city.

He does not think, however, that it is because of Prop. 47, the California law that raised the dollar value amount of stolen items from $400 to $950 before drawing a felony charge. It also made many non-violent drug charges misdemeanors or infractions instead of felonies.

“Why just San Francisco? Why not the whole state?” Males asked, pointing out that the surge in auto burglaries has not been seen in most other places in California. If Prop. 47 was having such an influence, he noted, shoplifting would also be affected but there has not been any concurrent increase in shoplifting crimes.

“That would be the thing that you would really think to go up, because that’s easier than car burglary,” Males said.

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