Crime is at a five-year high in San Francisco, and police are attributing the double-digit jump in thefts and robberies to a couple of usual suspects: smartphones and BART.
A total of 45,927 crimes were reported to San Francisco police through the end of October, according to the Police Department’s CompStat database. That’s the most crimes reported since CompStat began tracking criminal activity in 2009.
And if robberies, assaults and thefts continue at the same monthly rate, The City is on track to exceed 55,000 crimes in 2013, a nearly 22 percent jump from last year.
The vast majority — nearly 40,000 this year — are property crimes: auto break-ins, thefts and robberies that can also include an assault.
Police and criminologists say the causes behind the sharp theft increase are easy to see: smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices are increasingly prevalent, and continue to be the easiest — and most lucrative — target for thieves. Some thieves rely on public transportation to visit San Francisco for the express purpose of stealing, according to police and law enforcement experts.
And in a twist, the public itself may be to blame for the increased crime rate: repeated public-safety messages imploring victims or witnesses of crimes to report them to police may mean the crime wave is actually an increase in crimes being reported.
In any case, the increase is “a troubling blip,” said Jeff Snipes, a professor of criminal justice studies at San Francisco State University.
Snipes noted that a double-digit rise is statistically significant — and is in stark contrast to Los Angeles, which saw crime decrease by 5 percent — but it pales in comparison to the crime waves hitting Oakland and San Jose.
In the South Bay, property crimes jumped nearly 33 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to San Jose Police Department data. Last year, the severely understaffed Oakland Police Department dealt with a 23 percent jump in all property and violent crime, and a 43 percent increase in burglaries.
“The Bay Area is the outlier” to a nationwide downward trend, Snipes added, “and it finally seems to be hitting San Francisco.”
Police readily point out that The City’s murder rate remains roughly half what it was five years ago, with 37 homicides through October in 2013 and 67 in 2012.
Statistics also seem to support the long-held theory that BART and other public transportation such as Caltrain bring criminals as well as commuters into The City.
Nearly a quarter of all The City’s crime occurs in the densely populated, transit-rich Southern Police Station district, which runs from The Embarcadero to Duboce Avenue south of Market Street.
That’s also an area transformed and enriched thanks to the well- publicized boom in The City’s technology sector, which has helped lower unemployment citywide to 5.3 percent.
“This is the most expensive real estate market in the country — people have devices, and [thieves] know this is a lucrative place,” said Dan Lawson, a retired former Police Department captain and director of the University of San Francisco’s Department of Public Safety.
Lawson likened a citizen focused on an iPhone screen to someone zoned in on a handful of $100 bills.
“It’s not prudent, but we all do that,” he said.
The City’s two other busiest police stations are Northern, which polices an area stretching from City Hall to the Marina district, and Mission.
Police say the insatiable market for technology also spills over into the criminal arena: smartphone thefts appear to spike whenever a new device is introduced, such as Apple’s iPhone 5C in September.
Once stolen, devices are often long gone shortly after being resold. Devices stolen in San Francisco usually end up in Asia or South America, Officer Albie Esparza said.
Both Police Chief Greg Suhr and District Attorney George Gascón say they have been stymied in efforts to persuade phone manufacturers and service carriers to install kill switches that allow a user to remotely render a stolen device useless.