Four youths had just broken into a Bayview district home when police caught up with them. A decade ago, they all would have been in serious trouble. But today, the incident resulted in one arrest.
The ringleader — a “professional burglar,” as police Chief Greg Suhr called him — became a permanent part of the justice system, but the others were offered job opportunities instead of public defenders through pretrial diversion programs.
While crime in California and nationwide is on a downward trend, it is anecdotes like this that explain a steady — and much sharper — decline in felony and misdemeanor arrests in The City.
Felony arrests in San Francisco County tumbled from 20,954 in 2002 to 8,911 in 2011, the most recent year of available data from the California Department of Justice. And misdemeanor arrests dropped from 22,063 in 2002 to 13,917 in 2011.
Arrests in Alameda and Santa Clara counties are down too, but only by 25 percent.
“We realized we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” said Suhr, who recalled the Bayview burglary from his stint as the neighborhood station’s captain from October 2009 until being named chief in April 2011.
Old Police Department policy, Suhr said, was akin to the police work in “Casablanca”: rounding up the usual suspects en masse in response to a spike in crime.
“It just doesn’t work,” he said, noting that mass arrests are “way more expensive” than The City’s summer jobs program or other efforts to get at-risk youths “hooked on paychecks” rather than drugs or crime.
“And it’s working,” he said. “It’s getting harder for gangs to recruit kids, and it’s getting easier for us to recruit kids for jobs.”
By contrast, arrests for homicides doubled in the past decade, from 32 in 2002 to 66 in 2011. Felony drug arrests experienced perhaps the sharpest drop, from 8,035 felony drug busts in 2002 to 1,756 in 2011.
Some crime statistics stayed steady throughout the past decade, with some notable exceptions. There were 50 homicides reported in 2011, down from a 10-year high of 100 in 2007, according to the state data. Reported rapes dropped from 211 in 2002 to 134 in 2011.
“America is in the midst of a great crime drop,” said Alex Gerould, a professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University, who noted that San Francisco values also play a role. “I think there’s a policy in San Francisco, that at least the minor drug crimes aren’t being arrested the way they used to be.”
Among other violent felonies, rape arrests dropped from 42 in 2002 to 26 in 2011.
If there are fewer arrests in the Bay Area, there also are fewer officers making those arrests. Staffing levels at all major police organizations have dropped significantly over the past decade.