You’re Being Lied to About San Francisco Crime
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most theft is wage theft. Meaning, the dollar value of stolen wages is greater than the value, each year, of all burglaries+robberies, shoplifting, auto theft, combined. Yet, wage theft is NOT A CRIME 2/ pic.twitter.com/BOj2yXXmtP
— Dave McKenna (@djmckenna00) June 6, 2020
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.