As videos of brazen retail thefts in San Francisco draw national attention, The Examiner has obtained new data showing that District Attorney Chesa Boudin is prosecuting far fewer shoplifting cases than his predecessor.
The numbers show the prosecution rate for shoplifting cases involving a misdemeanor petty theft charge for a loss of $950 or less fell under Boudin, from 70 percent under former District Attorney George Gascon in 2019 to 44 percent in 2020 and 50 percent as of mid-June 2021.
Prosecutors filed charges in 116 of 266 cases presented by police involving petty theft in 2020, compared to 450 of 647 cases in 2019, according to the data provided by the District Attorney’s Office.
On the other hand, the prosecution rate for certain organized retail theft cases remained between 81 and 84 percent under both Gascon and Boudin between 2019 and 2021.
The office charged 35 of the 43 organized retail theft cases presented in 2020, compared to 21 of the 25 cases in 2019.
The numbers come out at a time when San Francisco is facing a perceived wave of retail theft that has reportedly driven stores to close or reduce their hours. Mixed into the narrative, propagated by media outlets and on social media, is the belief that the progressive district attorney’s stance liberal stance on incarceration and prosecution has turned San Francisco into a lawless city.
While the crime trend seen in viral videos of thieves brazenly stealing goods from Walgreens or Neiman Marcus is not borne out by police data — reports of shoplifting have actually dropped since 2019 and remained relatively consistent over the last decade — Boudin critics say some retailers have simply stopped calling the cops.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that San Francisco has long been an epicenter of property crimes that are rarely solved by police, meaning the district attorney only has the opportunity to charge a fraction of the crimes committed. But critics say the numbers show Boudin is contributing to the problem.
In an interview with The Examiner, Boudin said the decline in prosecution rates for shoplifting cases is a reflection of the “difficult choices” his office had to make during the pandemic, when the Hall of Justice closed most of its courtrooms and city officials decided to largely empty the jails, in part to prevent an outbreak.
“We made an intentional decision to prioritize crimes involving violence, injury to human beings and use of weapons,” Boudin said.
The data comes with some caveats.
The statistics do not, for instance, include shoplifting or organized retail theft cases charged only as commercial burglaries or robberies since it would be difficult to parse out similarly charged cases unrelated to thefts from stores.
Also, the prosecution rates only consider charges being filed, and not other actions taken like motions to revoke probation or referrals to other agencies. The prosecution rates remain down for shoplifting when those numbers are included.
While the data falls short of capturing the entire universe of charging decisions, it still offers some insight as to how prosecutions have changed under the progressive district attorney, who campaigned on a platform of reducing mass incarceration.
Critics say the data furthers their argument that Boudin has made San Francisco an attractive place to commit crimes, such as retail thefts and car break-ins, without fear of consequence.
By not filing cases or charging strike enhancements that tack on years to prison sentences, Boudin has made San Francisco a “magnet for criminals,” said former Assistant District Attorney Tom Ostly.
“There is absolutely a connection between the rebooking rates and crime going up,” said Ostly, who prosecuted organized retail theft cases under Gascon until Boudin fired him after taking office. “If you don’t hold people accountable, they will do it more.”
Yet Police Commissioner John Hamasaki, a criminal defense attorney who supports Boudin, said comparing 2020 crime data to any other year is like “comparing apples to alligators.” Hamasaki said many low-level cases, including for shoplifting, were not charged as the pandemic required prosecutors to limit the number of people at the courthouse.
“Prosecutors are forced to look at each case and ask, ‘Is this worth it during a pandemic?’” Hamasaki said.
Boudin said his office has been focused on detecting and dismantling the organized retail theft and fencing operations driving the problem by selling goods on the internet or shipping them overseas. Boudin said prosecutors have “numerous” investigations ongoing into the issue with other law enforcement agencies around the region and state.
“There is no question that in this moment, as we reopen, there is heightened awareness of longstanding problems of property crime and retail theft,” Boudin said. “My office is doing everything we can to make sure that people feel safe as we reopen.”
While his county faces different challenges than San Francisco, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said his office never had to decline to file a case based on resources or because his priority was a different type of crime, even during the pandemic.
“That we have not and would not do,” Wagstaffe said. “For us it’s simply, ‘Can we prove a case?’”
Wagstaffe said the number of theft cases presented to his office by police dropped off during COVID-19, as malls closed in the area and other crimes increased, but he believes his filing rate for thefts has remained consistent.
“Over a five-year period, you wouldn’t find any change on that in our county,” said Wagstaffe, who did not have data for San Mateo on hand.
San Francisco Supervisor Ahsha Safai has been trying to get to the bottom of the issue. A hearing he called to address drugstore closures in May kicked off the national media frenzy over the issue.
While Safai knows police data shows reported incidents going down, he said the crime is becoming more brazen and frequent. Safai said retailers have reported greater losses from theft.
“We saw what happened at Neiman Marcus on Monday,” Safai said, referring to a viral video of thieves bolting out of the Union Square store with luxury handbags. “I have personally witnessed people going in to drugstores with bags and emptying shelves. That is what is increasing.”
Safai is calling on prosecutors and police to help put together a coordinated response to the issue. San Francisco is the only city in the nation where Target has cut its hours because of retail theft, he said.
“That should say something about the amount of loss that these businesses are experiencing,” Safai said.