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You’re Being Lied to About San Francisco Crime

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San Francisco Crime Tenderloin

This rather stunning photo of is from an alley in the Tenderloin, which is widely considered the center of San Francisco crime. Pic from Piqsels 

By Peter Calloway – Deputy Public Defender

There’s a lot of talk right now about San Francisco crime. Almost everything you’ll read in the mainstream press is wrong. I live in the Tenderloin and work in the courts every day. Here’s my take on what’s happening and why.

Let’s start with an example of the pervasive disinformation you’ll find in so much media coverage: In a recent piece on the Tenderloin—where I’ve lived for four years, and the epicenter of the city’s homelessness and drug crises—a Washington Post journalist tells readers that crime in the neighborhood is out of control.

Murder and rape have jumped double-digit percentages since last year! Well, he’s right about that. And it sounds scary. But what are the actual increases (# of incidents, not %)? Homicides increased from 10 to 11. Rapes increased from 22 to 28.

What about San Francisco crime overall? If you read the Chronicle (with some exceptions), or the literature produced by the campaign to recall the district attorney, or national outlets advancing the conservative claim that San Francisco is a failed experiment in progressive policymaking, you probably think it’s bad and getting worse.

Let’s Take a Look at the Actual Numbers

First, a note on methodology: These San Francisco crime statistics are generated from data provided by the San Francisco Police Department, so we’re playing on their field. And I’m using 2019 as a baseline.

Why?

Because in 2020, crime across the country dropped significantly. So while the city saw increases in crime (mostly marginal) in some of these categories from 2020–21, that’s likely due to the fact that for most of 2020, everyone was spending much of their time at home indoors.

Now, the numbers: Citywide, from 2019–21, homicides increased 36%. That sounds significant, but the actual # increase was 15. San Francisco has one of the lowest homicide rates among major cities in the United States. Include rural communities, and San Francisco is not even in the conversation.

Over the same period, rape, robbery, and assault decreased by 47% (-191), 27% (-851), and 6% (-160), respectively. So, violent crime (which the SFPD categorizes as homicide, rape, robbery, and assault) decreased by 19% (-1187). Property crime over that period decreased by 11% (-6083).

What about the Tenderloin? This is the neighborhood the Board of Supervisors recently voted to subject to the mayor’s emergency declaration, mobilizing more police to enforce anti-homeless laws and force unhoused people to disperse into other areas of the city (By the way, only 2 supervisors, Shamann Walton and Dean Preston, voted against this).

In the Tenderloin, as citywide, crime went down overall: a decrease of 3% (-127). Violent crime decreased by 14% (-134), and property crime increased by less than 1% (.24%, or +7).

Larceny (theft of personal property, including from retail outlets)—which was heavily relied upon by the board and the mayor to justify their draconian, anti-poor policing strategies—was down 7% (-173).

San Francisco Crime Disinformation Campaigns

I have to admit, even I was surprised to see San Francisco crime numbers quite like this. The constant noise from well-respected media outlets affects the way we all view these problems, in obvious and subtle ways. It affects the way people feel about crime. And politicians love to say that even despite the numbers, the way people feel about crime matters.

People talking about San Francisco crime on Fox News

The media is purposely generating fear and exploiting it as evidenced by this screenshot from Fox News. They are greatly embellishing San Francisco crime.

I think that’s true. But rarely mentioned is that the way people feel about crime is a direct consequence of how the media and politicians talk about it. And when they lie about the numbers, or ignore them, they manipulate people’s feelings toward anti-democratic, anti-poor, and anti-Black political ends.

They are generating fear and exploiting it, creating a political environment ripe for a dramatic swing back to the tough-on-crime policies that have caused incalculable harm and suffering in poor and minority communitiesacross the country for decades.

It’s hard to see this as anything but intentional. It doesn’t take much to scratch the surface on these various intersecting subjects. When you do—and if it’s your job to do so, I’d hope you could be bothered—one explanation for this current wave of disinformation emerges pretty clearly.

Two years after being elected on a platform to do exactly what he’s done, San Francisco’s progressive DA, Chesa Boudin, is facing a recall funded primarily by right-wing billionaires.

Proponents of the recall effort are exploiting people’s perceptions of crime—that it’s going up, that they’re in danger, and that Boudin is responsible—to create a much more unequal and widely surveilled San Francisco.

In their vision for our city, wealthy conservatives and mostly white liberals don’t have to look at homeless people, and don’t have to grapple with the conditions many of these recall proponents help create that lead to homelessness, substance use disorder, and the like.

What are those conditions? The literature is clear: Lack of access to affordable housing and good jobs, the absence of robust mental health care, wage theft (which dwarfs in dollar value all burglary, robbery, larceny, and auto theft combined), and other poverty-producing mechanisms.

Instead, they can gallivant about the city eating at Michelin-starred restaurants, riding multi-thousand-dollar bicycles through the park and talking about the next startup they’re funding, all without confronting the human costs of enforcing their extractive utopia.

This vision is only possible if supported by disinformation about what’s happening on our streets. It requires a sustained effort—aided by journalists, politicians, and wealthy elites—to exaggerate some problems, ignore others, and prescribe solutions that we know don’t work.

Of course, none of this suggests that even a minimal increase in crime doesn’t matter. Every homicide or rape, for example, is obviously a tragedy on its own, and also produces trauma that reverberates through entire families and communities, sometimes for generations. My own grandfather was shot to death when my dad was fifteen, and the impact of that violence, which occurred almost half a century ago, continues. But it is no response to that type of harm to say, without evidence, that crime is out of control and only more police can solve it. In fact, it is the people advancing alternatives to the ineffective, status quo solutions to these problems who are committed to true public safety.

So, why am I writing this? Because I’ve had many conversations about these issues with a number of strangers in recent months. The extent to which they have been misinformed is staggering. When I tell them what the numbers actually reveal; when I explain that Boudin is prosecuting many categories of crime at a higher rate than his predecessor, and that a DA’s policies don’t even have a measurable effect on crime; when I show that the solutions being offered to these problems (like locking up drug dealers and users) have been a complete and utter failure—they’re shocked. That’s entirely inconsistent with what they’ve been told, repeatedly and with conviction.

My hope is that by having these conversations, we can help to disrupt the “San Francisco crime” disinformation campaign and prevent a lot of suffering. I hope that these conversations, aided by more responsible media coverage, will result in fewer people less likely to support a vision for our city that so many seem committed to, a vision that is deeply harmful to so many more.

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29 Comments

  1. April 21, 2022 at 12:16 pm — Reply

    I wrote about this very thing a few months ago: https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Nothing-says-holiday-cheer-like-San-Francisco-s-16707991.php

    SF has always been, in the public eye, the epicenter of “Leftist America”, so the ability for other places to take shots at it – particularly with incorrect stats – is an opportunity those places never want to pass up.

  2. Robert
    April 21, 2022 at 12:45 pm — Reply

    Statistics for me may give us part of the picture, but walking around is a much better way to decide on how safe or unsafe an area is. Since my return to the City five years ago, my car window was shattered an ransacked, my apt. hse has been broken in to and ransacked (mail boxes, laundry room cash boxes) three times. And I don’t live in the Tenderloin. And the tent cities, urine, and needles i have to step around have only grown. The tent cities always have piles of broken glass at curbside in proximity, indicating parked cars that have broken in to and ransacked as well. My eyes and my experience tell me the City is in a bad way and getting worse. Statistics can lie all they want.

    • Jack
      April 22, 2022 at 12:14 am — Reply

      I have been in San Francisco for 25 years.
      Regarding crime it started to change 2 to 3 years ago, everyday gets worts.
      I moved to The USA because crime in my country. Thanks USA.
      Be carful, is getting really bad here.
      The misinformation is that the recall is republican, the recall is me a father whom is scared in SF, whom owns a business and see crime almost everyday.
      Don’t try to change, if you cant provide what is needed to do so.
      And by the way, when there is crime, the poor people is the ones most affected.

    • Schills
      April 22, 2022 at 9:27 am — Reply

      What I heard from this article is, “yeah, rapes, robberies, homicides and violent crimes are up… But just a little bit. Then the author complains about disinformation by providing disinformation. Quality of life crimes is where Boudin fails greatly. Just walk outside and try not to be disgusted or anxious at something every block. The author and all the other cop haters will cover an elephant with a wash cloth and tell you how great everything is.

      • Howard
        April 23, 2022 at 7:02 pm

        I lived in Sf for 10 years in the 80s and in the East Bay for 20 years in the 90s and Oughts. I just spent 2 weeks in SF visiting family and it’s still the most beautiful, fun, magical city in the USA. And as safe as in any US urban area.

  3. sps
    April 21, 2022 at 1:03 pm — Reply

    Jesus, this is tone deaf.

  4. Tommy Strange
    April 21, 2022 at 1:13 pm — Reply

    Excellent. This is like the 3rd crime article on your site that is truthful. Funny how easy it is to look up crime stats, especially per capita since the 90’s huh? FBI vic stats, mixed with BOJ stats.. Biden does a speech ‘more funding for the police’ and the entire party cheers. So much for the kneeling bullshit on cloth….meanwhile working class people get bludgeoned more every year….and are still not going nuts. That should be the headline, “Worst Wages, From 2009 to present, Rising Rents, ” (etc). “And Violence still Lower then the 90’s”……

    • PainintheTenderloin
      April 24, 2022 at 12:09 am — Reply

      Wow. This is tone deaf and clearly written by someone who has no empathy towards victims of crime. He’s also clearly not of the demographic that is most vulnerable to violent crime — Asian Americans — who are being (to use Lebron’s words) being hunted every single day in the city. I have witnessed multiple instances of actual violent crime against Chinese women in Chinatown by violent, mentally ill homeless people, and a large percentage of them are of a certain race.
      Every victim has a tragic story inflicted on them by someone we should get rid of in our society. And to first use actual numbers of rapes and murders to say there aren’t that many and then to use % to show the decline of other crimes is just twisting data to fit his narrative.
      Hey Broke-Ass, your white privilege is showing.

  5. Joe Beets
    April 21, 2022 at 2:08 pm — Reply

    Good to know that the lived experience of my neighbors, myself and many in the city are wrong.

  6. Tony Dunsworth
    April 21, 2022 at 3:06 pm — Reply

    I love this breakdown of the stats and how numbers are being manipulated to create fear. I am curious if someone could get access to CAD data to find out how many calls are officer generated and how many calls for service are closed without report but somehow come into view of the fear mongers. I don’t believe you would see, looking at the conversion rate, any significant increase in the actual rates, but I do believe they can be manipulated to make it seem worse.

  7. S
    April 21, 2022 at 4:11 pm — Reply

    Stuart/Alex,

    First off I am a long time reader and usually like the stories that come from your website.

    I just read the SF crime story that was just written by a “guest”.

    I found it fairly dishonest. True, if you look at only SFPD’s crime statistics in SF you may not find crime going up or down that much since Chesa took over.

    What you fail to realize is that there are over 12 other law enforcement agencies (FBI, US Park Police, SFSU Police, UCSF Police, City College Police, US Bridge Patrol Police, CHP, US Postal Police, SF Sheriff Department, ATF, US Marshal’s service ect) that you are not accounting for all the crimes that they are taking reports for.

    You write that SFPD might be hedging their numbers? If they were hedging the numbers at all it would be to under report crimes because Police Captains look bad when more crimes are committed in their district.

    The writer is not also taking into account that so many people just fail to report crimes that are committed to them because it takes law enforcement agencies so long to get to the scene of a cold crime because they are so short officers. (The average wait for an auto break in is 3-4 hours). Most tourist/commuters aren’t going to wait that long for a police report.

    SF unfortunately ranks #1 for property crime of any major city in the country. This is do to numerous factors but one of the biggest is the SF DA’s office failure to prosecute repeat offenders:
    https://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/The-Scanner-San-Francisco-ranks-No-1-in-13267113.php

    I have worked as a public defender with Chesa and voted for him. Yet I have seen first hand how bad his mismanagement has been for the DA’s office. I see your lack of in depth reporting as something I would normally see coming out of Fox News.

    Don’t you think it is fairly unnerving that nearly half of the ADA’s in Chesa’s office have quit under his management? These are bright liberal assistant district attorneys, not conservatives.

    I have worked with countless clients who come from all over the bay area to commit crimes in SF because they know that SF prosecutes the least of any bay area county.

    Ask yourself why so many liberals that voted for Chesa have pulled their support for him including Matt Haney.

    Please realize that publishing such puff pieces for Chesa does a disservice to your website and to the city.

  8. Rational Approach
    April 21, 2022 at 4:35 pm — Reply

    You conveniently ignore the fact that the “I love criminals more than victims” approach of Chesa Boudin and the BoS has so discouraged people that they no longer report the “non-violent” crimes at all. Why bother reporting? You’ll just hear a cop tell you it’s your fault for leaving an empty McD”s sack on your floor or having windows in your shop.

    The real goal of Chesa and his ilk is to get people to realize that reporting crime is pointless, so they stop doing it — thereby making the (skewed) statistics appear better than they are.

    Potential rape victims need to ask themselves this: If I were raped, would I trust Chesa to prosecute the offender enough that I’d go through the humiliation and difficulties involved in reporting and prosecuting a rapist?

    Face it, Chesa is the date rapist’s best friend. And the friend of mass shoplifters….

  9. Whatever
    April 21, 2022 at 8:28 pm — Reply

    I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, but sadly I’ve been attacked three times and almost a fourth since 2011. The 2nd time the detective told me that the police severely under report those crime stats (this was 2014) because we are a tourist destination. I keep telling myself “all cities are like this” and “hurt people hurt people” and “I guess I shouldn’t have been walking to work at 7:45am along Embarcadero” but after awhile it feels like I’m trying to justify staying in an abusive relationship – always looking for the good in the people, justifying their behavior. “Oh if you don’t like it here, you should leave” I read over and over, and I wonder, I’m not the one attacking people, but I should leave? How many actual people are on the street because they lost their home and are genuinely trying to get back on their feet? Because to me, all I see are drug riddled psychos who are free to destroy everything around them, and the rest of us just swallow every splattered drop of their bullshit.

  10. Trevor
    April 21, 2022 at 9:47 pm — Reply

    It’s true that crime rates decreased from 2019-2021! It’s also true that some crimes increased markedly from 2019 to 2020, so it’s not completely off base to be concerned about that. Specifically, while burglaries and motor vehicle thefts dropped, they’re only 13,500 (2019) and 9,500 (2020) offenses a year. Larceny thefts increased from 25,700 (2019) to 42,000 (2020) – a 55% increase, and an increase of 14,300 offenses. I get why that is concerning to folks!

  11. Dustin
    April 21, 2022 at 10:30 pm — Reply

    I lived in lower Nob Hill in 2018-2019 and agree with Robert. As much as I love certain aspects of the city, it’s genuinely not in a good place. I had my car window broken into twice, saw property damage to buildings daily, and was aware of numerous package thefts weekly. Cops? Non-existent. While walking down the street, I watched a homeless person inject themselves in the carotid artery while holding a broken piece of glass to see it. A woman was jumped and beaten on my block and had her dog stolen. Dare I mention the smell of urine and feces.. I could go on and I only lived there a year. It’s a love-hate because there are so many great things about the city, but at some point we have to call it what it is.

  12. April 22, 2022 at 1:14 am — Reply

    Many types of crime in the Tenderloin are never reported and thus don’t influence crime stats. This especially includes drug dealing, vandalism and petty theft.

    • Owen
      April 22, 2022 at 6:12 pm — Reply

      Tell it brother. Anyone can say that crime is way down if crime is not reported and ignored!

  13. Alex
    April 22, 2022 at 3:24 am — Reply

    He says that by relying on police data, we’re “playing on their field,” but everyone who has experienced crime in SF knows that the cops don’t want to take reports. They will actively dissuade you from doing so. Their reports of crime stats are useless. You can’t hide something as big as murder, but otherwise we should take their numbers with a grain of salt. Especially when it comes to crimes against people who don’t speak English, like the recent wave of Chinese-bashing. I know this from personal experience, as several elderly Chinese friends have been assaulted, but didn’t feel there would be any positive result if they tried to report it. In one case I insisted, because it happened in front of a security camera and I thought they could catch the assailant. I offered to translate and be my friend’s advocate. But just as he predicted, the cops didn’t care, they just kept giving us the run-around until my friend was so embarrassed he wanted to leave. Similarly, the claim here that there hasn’t been a big rise in larceny is ridiculous. On one hand the police fail to do their jobs as a sort of “F-you” to a city they feel doesn’t support them, while on the other hand people like this author cite the bogus numbers of those very police, to claim that the city’s crime is in our imagination, created by media puppet-masters, and we shouldn’t believe our lying eyes or personal experiences. It’s a frustrating dilemma without winners.

  14. Alex
    April 22, 2022 at 8:27 am — Reply

    What a sad article. Typical leftist drivel. Must be written for people who don’t live here, as propaganda like this doesn’t work when you live in the middle of it. Saying crime is down is kind of like biding saying he grew the economy at a record rate.

  15. HopefulintheMission!
    April 22, 2022 at 9:41 am — Reply

    Lately, when visiting with friends and family post-pandemic, when I tell folks that I still live in SF (I moved to Alameda for 3 years but came back) they look at me somberly and say, “How IS it in San Francisco?” they seem terrified for me and my family to live in such a lawless place. The car break-in, the homeless, the trash everywhere, and the expense of it all make them ask, WHY?

    I explain that living in SF gives me a true sense of humanity, sitting in Dolores Park and seeing ALL the different types of people all with very different lived experiences, chatting and laughing together, pacing up and down dealing with internal demons, selling their wares to try to make a living, cuddling and kissing, sharing this common space reminds me that all human deserve a space to live and grow. It reminds me of MY role in creating a better world for the people in my community.

    When citizens are stuck in fear and powerlessness, it becomes really hard to see the opportunity we have, as individuals, to create change. If we are waiting for police or politicians to save our city, we are f*ucked! I did a street clean-up in the Mission last week and the looks my partner and I got from folks heading for Sunday brunch were really telling.

    We can’t have clean streets if no one is cleaning them (when is the last time you joined your neighbors for a street clean-up, it’s actually pretty satisfying), we can’t eradicate homelessness if there is no affordable housing available (how many property owners/landlords are willing to charge below-market rate to give a struggling family a chance), we can’t help sick folks without giving them access to healthcare, people will continue to live and die on our streets if there is nowhere else for them to do so.

    Instead of lamenting about how bad the city has gotten let’s spend some time dreaming up solutions that acknowledge the humanity of our friends and neighbors. I believe that answers are out there and that they live within US, the citizens of SF.

  16. April 22, 2022 at 12:16 pm — Reply

    I will vote for any THING that will clean San Francisco up, in every way.

    This depravity has gone on for too long.

    Bring back mass incarceration, eliminate cash bail for both the rich AND the poor.

    And outlaw tents. Give fair warning but after that, destroy them on-the-spot.

  17. Ivan van Ogre
    April 22, 2022 at 12:25 pm — Reply

    Also, increase the Street Ambassador program ten times over and make it 24 hours a day.

    Give them police arrest powers and find an honest organization that will train them in this as well as the use of choke-holds, which actually work but require training and DAILY practice, SA on SA.

    Put 2 or 3 of them on a corner and 2 or 3 more of them 3 blocks away, radiating outward. Crime will not only drop, it will stop.

    And if the Street Ambassadors encounter someone with a deadly weapon they call 911 and EXPECT the cops to show up and if they don’t, fire them and hire someone who is willing to SHOW UP!!!

  18. Owen
    April 22, 2022 at 6:07 pm — Reply

    They can try to spin it however they want to, but we who live in the city and walk the streets every day know the truth: crime and disorder are out of control. Trying to politicize the issue of safety is gross, whether it is from the left or the right

  19. Charlie
    April 23, 2022 at 2:29 pm — Reply

    https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/san-francisco-restaurant-beefs-up-security-due-rise-of-crime-in-city/2871765/

    Everyone else is putting up extra security, watching their backs and complaining but Broke Ass Stuart has locked himself in his basement and his busy on social media saying that everything is fine.

  20. Joshua
    April 23, 2022 at 10:07 pm — Reply

    Wow you are so completely full of shit. Yeah, the real criminals are tax payers, and white people. Homeless junky criminals are the “victims” same old Marxist bullshit propaganda. Your opinion is worthless, you want to victimize hard working responsible people.

  21. Bob Johnson
    April 24, 2022 at 9:50 am — Reply

    This is BS. It doesn’t take into consideration all the crimes that are not reported due to the lack of prosecutions by the DA and inaction of the SFPD.

  22. Brandon Bagwell
    April 24, 2022 at 8:53 pm — Reply

    The cops are the ones selling the drugs, lets be honest here. As someone who has spent plenty of time doing “bad things”, trust me, various law enforcement agencies are 85% of the bags being sold, and they use these controlled sales to gather intelligence on users. Even the taste/quality of the dope screams it… its “too clean” to be regular street dope (and why shouldn’t it be? No need to cut what they make themselves to sell).

    I remember a time before Snowden, before 9/11, and before the modern police state and surveillance laws existed. Every single crime article written the last decade starts with an undercover cop of some kind.

    The ONLY reason they wanna go “hard on dealers and soft on users” is they don’t want any individual jeapordizing their monopoly.

    In the cold war days, we were worried how many Russians were spying on Americans. Now, it is the Americans who spy on the Americans, so we can trap Americans in American prisons.

    We’ve become our own worst nightmare.

    If someone FOIA’d, we could discover exactly how many of the recently deceased (fentanyl cases) had controlled sales within the last six months.

    I’d bet my life its over 50%.

  23. S. Goat
    May 4, 2022 at 9:52 pm — Reply

    Whatever the statistics, all the crime, homelessness, dirty streets and stresses of SF city life are obviously all Chesa Boudin’s fault and once we recall him, everything will be so much better.

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