Just before midnight, two men on bicycles rode up to a car parked on a dark Parkmerced street. One smashed the window before both began ransacking the vehicle for valuables.
An off-duty officer called police and within minutes both thieves were in handcuffs, Ingleside Police Station Lt. Tom Clary said when recalling the incident.
Vehicle break-ins may be as frequent as foggy days in The City, but arrests like Wednesday night’s are extraordinarily rare.
Those who break in to vehicles rarely face consequences, according to Police Department statistics. From Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 7,130 auto burglaries in San Francisco were reported to police. Arrests were made in only 4 percent of them.
The frequency of break-ins is down slightly from the same period last year, when 8,408 were reported, also with a 4 percent arrest rate. However, police acknowledge that the actual number of auto burglaries is much higher.
“I wouldn’t doubt it’s underreported. People go through their insurance or just pay out of pocket,” Clary said. “We want them to report it so we know where they’re happening and where to put our resources.”
San Francisco police Sgt. Lyn Tomioka said the difficulty in catching the burglar often comes down to simple details — the crime is committed in the middle of the night and perpetrators can spot patrol cars before being spotted by officers.
Carlos Ventura, a 30-year-old graphic designer, said he wasn’t terribly surprised when he recently found his window shattered after parking his Mazda at Fourth and Townsend streets, two blocks from his apartment.
“I see smashed windows all the time there, but I left it for the weekend. The glass was all over the place,” he said. The thief, who hit several other cars in the area, rifled through Ventura’s glove box, but found nothing to steal.
“It’s very hard to track these people down, even if there’s a camera. They come in the middle of the night and run away,” he said.
Of those who are caught, about 79 percent are prosecuted. If convicted, sentences vary widely — a car burglar can be released after being sentenced to time served or be sent to state prison for several years.
Auto burglary can either be charged as a felony or misdemeanor, and prosecutors make the decision based on a suspect’s criminal history, Assistant District Attorney Brian Buckelew said.
If slapped with a felony charge, suspects face up to three years behind bars. A misdemeanor typically earns a short stint in County Jail or a rehabilitation program.
Many suspects are drug addicts and chronic offenders, Buckelew said. The vast majority of them enter into deals in which they plead guilty in exchange for reduced sentences.
Auto burglars in San Francisco are rarely caught in the act.
Auto burglaries reported to police (Jan. 1 to Aug. 31)
People arrested on suspicion of auto burglary (Jan. 1 to Aug. 31)
2009 298 (4 percent)
2008 305 (4 percent)
Perpetrators who were prosecuted
2009 234 (79 percent)
2008 238 (78 percent)
Source: Police Department