By Thomas K. Pendergast
Facing heavy public criticism and the possibility of a recall election, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin walked the commercial corridor on Clement Street between Arguello Boulevard and 10th Avenue speaking to merchants about crime.
Amidst public perception that crime has increased dramatically during the pandemic, Boudin is under fire for the “restorative justice” policies that he ran on for election in 2019.
“If there are any problems with public safety, we want to hear about it,” Boudin said. “That’s why I’m coming out to talk to merchants directly, to hear from them what their concerns are and to make sure my office is supporting them.
“I haven’t had a chance to be in the community because of COVID,” he said. “The single-biggest challenge for me personally, trying to run the City’s public safety apparatus, is not being able to be in the community. So, as we re-open, I’m trying to take every opportunity I can to be in the neighborhoods, to hear from the small businesses, the residents, to talk to people, hear what their concerns are … and find ways that my office and San Francisco can do a better job serving them.”
Steve Wong owns a general electronics store, JVD Global Inc., on the corner of Clement Street and Eighth Avenue. He said that for most of the pandemic they have not been fully opened, but he does have problems with petty theft, like people asking to look at a smart phone and then running off with it.
“It’s no use,” Wong said. “They just grab the things. Sometimes it’s a couple of hundred dollars.”
But if police arrive quickly enough to catch a suspect, there is still the decision about whether pursuing it further really is worth it.
“(Police officers) ask me, ‘you want him (to) go to jail or let him go?’ But even if they go to jail, they will come out,” he said.
“People do get out eventually for stealing, that’s true,” Boudin replied.
Although some believe that crime is getting out of control, citywide the statistics say otherwise. And on this section of Clement Street, that seems to be true as well.
SFPD incident reporting data shows, for Clement Street, the crimes that affect merchants the most – like shoplifting, larceny, auto burglaries and commercial burglaries, etc. – went up from 2018 through 2019 but then dropped severely after the pandemic hit.
Discarding supplemental incident reports that refer to previously recorded events, warrants or drunk driving and traffic-related arrests (beginning each year on March 17, the date of the pandemic-related shutdown in 2020) from March of 2018 to 2019, about 308 relevant incident reports in that commercial corridor were reported. From March of 2019 to 2020 they went up to 369.
Then from the date the shutdown happened in 2020 through the following year, that number dropped to 219 incidents.
Currently only five months of data, March to August, are available for 2021 but those months show 124 incidents, a little more than half of the 2020 figures.
Yet there is another statistic that stands out in the data: the number of police arrests related to these events, which also dropped in 2020-2021.
Using the same parameters for the types of crime considered in this area, 2018 shows 19 total arrests or citations along this part of Clement Street, while 2019 shows them rising to 34 arrests or citations.
Then in 2020-2021, arrests or citations dropped down to 23. And since March 17 of this year, there were 19 arrests or citations.
These statistics, however, only reflect crime that generated a police report. Many crimes go unreported.
Amanda Weld owns the store Tantrum on Clement Street. She is a representative of the Clement Street Business Association and walked with Boudin to observe.
She noted that the complaints she heard from some of the merchants about reporting crimes like this are very familiar to her because sometimes she also must make a decision about handling shoplifters.
“Do you call the cops? Is it worth it? Is it going to make a difference?” Weld asked. “The police don’t want to deal with these little misdemeanors, so, over time, it makes a huge difference on a business to report every little thing. It’s a waste of our time. So, I think they’re all dealing with the same things.”
There is yet another aspect of the situation on Clement Street revealed by the data, which is not given for specific addresses but instead for the given locations focused on street intersections.
And consistently two street intersections generate incident reports far above the others: Eighth and Ninth avenues. In 2018, they generated 116 incident reports between them; in 2019 they contributed 137; in 2020 they produced 93 and so far in 2021 they’ve chalked up another 56.
Of the two, Ninth Avenue contributes more, with 73 in 2019; 81 in 2020 and so far 45 in 2021. Sitting on the corner of Clement Street and Ninth Avenue is a Walgreens store, and shoplifting has long been a problem there.
An employee at that Walgreens who did not want to be identified said by the time police get there, the thieves are long gone. Sometimes those who do get arrested come back into the same store only a few days later.
The employee noted that when they have a security guard on duty, the thieves don’t come around as much but when no security is there, they come right back.
Calls and emails to the Walgreens official press spokesperson, Philip Caruso, seeking clarification on the situation and the apparent lack of loss prevention officers were not returned by press time.
“I think COVID has change everything about how we live our lives,” Boudin said. “It’s changed a lot of things about public safety as well…. It’s also a lot harder for police to solve crimes because people who commit them are wearing masks. It may be really hard for them to identify people. And the courts have been closed so we haven’t been able to prosecute people as quickly or aggressively as we would have liked to be able to do. All those things are factors.
“During the pandemic, when the courts were shut, we had a bottleneck. But as we reopen, I tell Chief Scott all the time, I want him to work on increasing clearance rates.”