Social media platforms like Nextdoor have Richmond residents feeling uneasy about crime. The results are not pretty.
By Julie Pitta
An elderly Black man regularly strolls a quiet block in the Richmond. Jeffrey Devine is autistic and grieves for his mother, who died several months earlier, in the only way he knows how — by walking.
One sunny afternoon, another Richmond resident shoots a video of Jeffrey as he makes his way down the street. She posts it on Nextdoor, a wildly popular website that purports to create stronger bonds between neighbors. Jeffrey, the woman claims, is “casing” houses. In less than an hour, he is pronounced a threat to neighborhood safety by dozens of Nextdoor members.
Jessica Devine, Jeffrey’s niece, is eventually alerted to her uncle’s newfound notoriety. “Searching for human contact is not `casing,’” wrote Jessica. “I fear one of you, who is hyper-vigilant, will become aggressive and harm him …. Now that would be a true crime.”
A quick scan of Nextdoor reads like a crime blotter. It depicts the Richmond, long known as an oasis of calm in an otherwise bustling city, as a neighborhood riddled with crime. The portrayal is inaccurate, says Richard Corriea, a former Richmond District police captain and retired San Francisco Police Department commander. “This is still one of the safest neighborhoods in the City,” Correia states.
To be sure, COVID-19 has changed crime patterns in the City. The Richmond has seen an uptick in garage break-ins, particularly along the neighborhood’s wealthier corridors. Some attribute the recent crime wave to the dearth of tourists during the pandemic. (Tourists are, sadly, often a target for thieves.) Others blame it on empty streets. The most plausible explanation is that the pandemic simply expanded the chasm between rich and poor.
Even so, San Francisco fared better than many American cities during the pandemic: Overall crime dropped by about 25% in 2021. Violent crime, the standard by which law enforcement measures public safety, is at a historic low.
Why, then, are we feeling so uneasy? The answer is social media and those who use it for political gain, most notably the backers of an effort to overturn the election of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Nextdoor is only one of their social media tools. They’ve taken to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to spin their tales of a city out of control, a narrative rejected by veteran lawmen like retired SFPD Commander Correia.
The early months of shelter-in-place saw many of us turn to social media for human connection. It should come as no surprise, then, that social media platforms like Nextdoor have experienced exponential growth during the pandemic. Backers of the Boudin recall grabbed the opportunity to reach a captive audience, cynically using social media to intensify our unease during an unprecedented public health crisis and attempting to gather supporters for their causes.
The results have been as predictable as they are ugly. In the Richmond’s corner of Nextdoor, members have called for taking up arms. One man boasted of stabbing a homeless man he discovered sheltering near his car. Another posted a video of three Latino men entering the gate of an impressive Lake Street home, the implication being that they were there to steal. The men, as it turned out, were hired by the homeowner for a renovation project.
Not all Nextdoor crime posts are created by backers of the Boudin recall, but nearly all lead to unfairly blaming the district attorney for the pandemic-related increase in crime. No matter that Boudin is prosecuting cases at the same rate as his recent predecessors. Somehow, the SFPD, which is making arrests in only about 3% of burglary cases, is immune from criticism.
As the City is reopening, crime is beginning to drop. Those backing the Boudin recall would have you believe otherwise. The unintended consequence is that a Black man, walking down the street where he lives, was targeted as a thief by his neighbors. Jeffrey Devine’s mother, Beverlyn, a 40-plus-year Richmond resident, worried what would become of her son after her death. “She was a pillar of the community and kind to everyone,” says her granddaughter, Jessica. “Her only wish was that her son would be OK when she passed and was very much scared to die because of this.”
Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org