EDITOR’S NOTE AND UPDATE, Dec. 25, 2018: This story was filed Dec. 20, and as of that date, San Francisco was on track toward potentially recording its lowest number of homicides in nearly six decades.
Since that time, as of the evening of Tuesday Dec. 25, police have reported at least three more homicides.
On Saturday Dec. 22, 26-year-old Luis Velasquez-Mejia was shot in the 500 block of Naples Street. Police have arrested Jonathan Escobar, 22, in his death.
On Monday Dec. 24, 32-year-old Jovan Reed was killed at 1:15 a.m. in the 1300 block of Evans Avenue, and 64-year-old Christine Moyer was killed on Jessie Street near Sixth and Mint streets. No arrests have been made in those killings, although police have said they are looking at a suspect in another stabbing in connection with Moyer’s death.
Those homicides would bring the total for 2018 up to 46, with a week to go before the year’s end — still lower than 2017 or 2018, but above what The City saw in 2009.
The story below has been amended from the print version to reflect that while homicide rates are still down, they are no longer at historic lows.
A tenant sawed into pieces and stuffed into a plastic bin beneath the house. A security guard shot and killed as he talked to his wife on Facetime. A missing man’s head found floating in a fish tank.
San Francisco has not been without gruesome and senseless violence this year. But despite the gory headlines, the homicide count is actually on track to hit its lowest level in several years.
With just over a week left until the new year, 46 homicides have been reported to the San Francisco Police Department so far in 2018– three of them in the past four days. That’s 10 fewer than at the end of last year and 12 fewer than in 2016.
“We’re very hopeful that we can finish the year strong and work with the communities and start next year strong as well,” SFPD Chief Bill Scott said at a recent Police Commission meeting. “That’s a very good trend going into 2019.”
While homicide rates dipped down to 39 in 1961, the most recent lows were in 2014 and 2009, when police recorded 45 homicides.
More significant than the homicide count alone is that San Francisco has managed to reduce killings while booming in size from a population of around 700,000 in the early 1960s to roughly 900,000 at present.
Police, prosecutors and anti-violence activists point to a mixed bag of reasons for the decline. For one, San Francisco is not the only city in the region or the nation to see a drop, not just in homicides, but in violent crime across the board.
Oakland has seen a drop in homicides from 79 in 2016 to 65 so far this year, while San Jose has had 27 thus far in 2018 compared to 34 last year.
Another reason is that San Francisco has become older and more affluent, which means the residents here are less likely to kill.
“You have a combination of better policing, better prosecutions, demographic shifting and different social conditions that all come together to where we are today,” District Attorney George Gascon said in an interview.
San Francisco’s homicide count hovered around 100 in the years leading up to 2009, when Gascon became police chief. That year, he restructured the SFPD homicide unit to include different levels of supervision and rolled out Compstat to better deploy police units based on crime trends around The City.
Gascon said the improvements contributed to the homicide clearance rate rising. It has grown from around 24 percent in 2009 to 105 percent as of the end of November. A clearance rate higher than 100 percent means police have solved more homicides than have been reported in a year.
“That has an impact on the number of homicides because often people who commit killings sometimes commit more than one killing,” Gascon said. “The problem in San Francisco pre-2009 is that there were a lot of people who were killing and they were not being held accountable.”
The homicide count has remained below 70 in the years since, rising to 69 in 2012 before falling back down in 2013 to 48.
Scott attributed the decline to stronger police-community relations and improved police work, including the recent creation of the Crime Guns Investigation Center, which aims to stop gun violence by using crime data.
He also said that doubling foot patrols to fight property crimes like car break-ins last year has also led to a significant decline in assaults.
The chief said the high homicide clearance rate is “due to the tireless work of our investigators and our close collaboration with the communities we serve.”
“Through these partnerships, we are able to foster the trust that enables successful investigations and arrests,” Scott said in a statement.
Scott also gave credit to the United Playaz, a community group that has bought guns off the streets — no questions asked — each year since 2010.
The group took 244 firearms off the streets of San Francisco during a gun buyback earlier this month, including seven assault rifles.
“Any gun potentially that’s out there that’s being turned in can be used to commit a crime,” said Rudy Corpuz, founder and executive director of the group. “One assault rifle or one regular gun can devastate or kill a community.”
Corpuz said the decline is in part the result of increased attention being paid to gun violence.
As of earlier this month, Scott said gun violence was down 30 percent compared with this time in 2017 with 57 fewer shootings reported.
Shawn Richard, who runs Brothers Against Guns, also said the decline was due to better trust in the police.
“The community is more engaged and interacting with SFPD and working together in stopping some of this violence that’s been going on in San Francisco, especially in underprivileged communities,” Richard said.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the population in 1960 was just over 700,000.