Soon after moving to San Francisco in 2016, I walked into a Walgreens in North Beach to buy an electric toothbrush.
As I was paying for it, a man walked into the store, grabbed a handful of beef jerky and walked out. I looked over at an employee, who shrugged. Then I went to Safeway next door for some groceries and I saw a man stuffing three bottles of wine into a backpack and walking casually toward the exit. On his way out he bagged some snacks. I asked the Safeway clerk about the thefts.
“I’m new to San Francisco,” I said. “Is it optional to pay for things here?”
Five years later, the shoplifting epidemic in San Francisco has only worsened.
At a board of supervisors hearing last week, representatives from Walgreens said that thefts at its stores in San Francisco were four times the chain’s national average, and that it had closed 17 stores, largely because the scale of thefts had made business untenable.
Brendan Dugan, the director of the retail crime division at CVS Health, called San Francisco “one of the epicenters of organized retail crime” and said employees were instructed not to pursue suspected thieves because encounters had become too dangerous.
“We’ve had incidents where our security officers are assaulted on a pretty regular basis in San Francisco,” Dugan said.
The retail executives and police officers emphasized the role of organized crime in the thefts. And they told the supervisors that Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reclassified nonviolent thefts as misdemeanors if the stolen goods are worth less than $950, had emboldened thieves.
“The one trend we are seeing is more violence and escalating — and much more bold,” said Commander Raj Vaswani, the head of the investigations bureau at the San Francisco Police Department. “We see a lot of repeat offenders.”
San Francisco has suffered in a variety of ways during the pandemic. The city has had twice as many fatal drug overdoses as coronavirus deaths. Tents of legions of homeless people lined sidewalks during the lockdowns. But the hearing last week focused on something much more prosaic: One of the richest cities in America is struggling with sticky fingers.
The hearing did not answer a crucial question: Why San Francisco? If the problem stems in part from a change in California law, why aren’t other cities in the state seeing similar spikes in shoplifting?
On Thursday I called Ahsha Safaí, the member of the board of supervisors who organized the hearing.
We talked about the thefts we had witnessed in the city and the sidewalk thieves’ markets where steaks, bicycles and other stolen goods are fenced. Safaí said he had recently stopped to inspect one of these markets at 24th and Mission.
“Half of Walgreens was on the sidewalk. I’m not kidding,” Safaí said. “I was blown away. I’ve never seen anything like it in this city.”
He talked about what he called a laissez-faire attitude in San Francisco.
“It has become part of the landscape,” he said of thefts. “People say, ‘Oh, well, that just happens.’”
Thieves “are obviously choosing locales based on what the consequences are,” Safaí said. “If there are no consequences for their actions, then you invite the behavior. Over and over.”
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Compiled by Jonathan Wolfe