Car break-ins have become so common around Fisherman’s Wharf that it’s changing the local lexicon.
Sean Sears used to greet tourists interested in renting bicycles from his family’s shop with a friendly tip to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. Nowadays, he begins by telling customers don’t leave valuables in the car.
“It’s a real sour note to start off on,” said Sears, who helps run Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals and Tours on Hyde Street. “It’s gotten that bad.”
The pandemic offered San Francisco some respite from its rampant car break-in problem as residents and would-be visitors retreated into their homes. But with city dwellers emerging and tourists returning, so too are the opportunities for auto burglars who are known to operate in organized groups and prey on unsuspecting victims from out of town.
While car break-ins remain down overall citywide after falling dramatically in 2020, police data shows Fisherman’s Wharf and its neighboring areas covered by San Francisco Police Department’s Central Station are being hammered by auto burglaries, harder than all the other districts in The City.
Car break-ins have more than doubled in Central Station so far in 2021, with 2,048 incidents reported as of Sunday compared to 858 during the same time period last year, according to police. The numbers started rising there in March and have since surpassed pre-pandemic levels from 2019, when there were 1,797 car break-ins during the first five months of the year.
Fisherman’s Wharf is joined by neighborhoods like North Beach and Union Square in the Central Station. The police district is one of just two that have seen an increase in 2021. The other is Park Station, which covers areas including the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park, the Panhandle and Twin Peaks, and has recorded a slight uptick of under 3 percent, according to data obtained by The Examiner.
The reemerging crime trend is once again prompting locals to ask whether The City is doing enough to hold auto burglars accountable. But doing so might be easier said than done. While car break-ins are quick and easy to pull off, officials say the crime rarely leads to arrests and is hard to prosecute.
The trend also comes with a new twist this time around, now that the tourism industry is already bruised and hurting from the pandemic. Data from the San Francisco Travel Association shows The City’s visitor count dropped by 61 percent, or 16 million tourists, last year compared to 2019.
Jeff Sears, who operates Blazing Saddles with his son Sean, is worried the car break-ins could scare more visitors away.
“Two times we’ve had customers literally signing up, going through our orientation, getting ready to go when their car was broken into at that moment,” he said. “We’re just really becoming hammered by this because when someone has a bad experience they are going back home and sharing that with their family and friends and it’s just creating a snowball effect.”
Jose Moronta is one of those tourists who might not return to San Francisco after getting his rental car got broken into.
Moronta saw a sign warning him about the auto burglaries while visiting last week from Fort Lauderdale. But he didn’t think the problem could be that bad in the middle of the day. So he left his backpack visible in his rental car when he and his wife parked on Beach Street and went to grab lunch. The couple returned to find four cars busted into, including their own.
“I never had this ever happen to me. I grew up in Queens, New York,” Moronta said. “I will never come back.”
As the head of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, Randall Scott fields a handful of emails a week from merchants asking what is being done about the problem. Scott, whose organization collects tax dollars from local businesses to make quality-of-life and public safety improvements in the area, believes auto burglars are following tourists back into The City.
“People started coming back to the Wharf long before The City was open,” Scott said. “It didn’t take long for the auto burglars to see, ‘Oh, the targets are back.’”
Scott is convinced the uptick has a lot to do with the District Attorney Office failing to hold auto burglars accountable. He said the lack of consequences has emboldened thieves to run “rampant.”
“They don’t care anymore,” said Scott. “The word has gotten out that these guys are not gonna be prosecuted and police can’t chase them. I’ve seen these guys blow stop signs, they’ve blown red lights.”
But the District Attorney’s Office says it is prosecuting auto burglars most of the time police make an arrest.
Prosecutors have filed new charges in 63 of the 76 auto burglary arrests presented by police in 2021, and filed a motion to revoke probation against a suspect in one other case, according to the office. That’s a higher charging rate then 2020, when prosecutors pursued 88 of the 150 cases presented and filed 26 motions to revoke.
Still, considering there were more than 14,000 car break-ins in San Francisco in 2020, auto burglars rarely face arrest or prosecution, statistically speaking.
“Car burglaries can happen in as little as 15 seconds, which makes it very hard to catch people who commit them,” said Rachel Marshall, a spokesperson for District Attorney Chesa Boudin. “Given how difficult car burglaries are to solve, we need improved strategies to prevent them from happening in the first place.”
Prosecutors say auto burglary cases are hard to make for several reasons.
The office not only has to prove a person broke into a car, but that the door was locked and the suspect stole something, according to Assistant District Attorney Shirin Oloumi. If the victim in the case also happens to be a tourist, they probably have left town and might not be willing to return to testify.
“For a simple crime to commit, there are a lot of hoops we have to jump through to prove it on the DA’s end,” Oloumi said.
Even if a case is charged, suspects are often returned to the street because prosecutors only ask for jail time ahead of trial in violent cases or when a person is a flight risk.
“It’s annoying, my car has been broken into several times,” Oloumi said. “I know that it can be devastating when that happens, but at the same time auto burglaries, it’s a property crime, it’s not an assault on a person. These can be dangerous people, but the crime itself is a property crime, it’s not a detainable offense.”
One solution that has proven effective is having plainclothes teams focus on auto burglars in areas like Central Station, according to Oloumi.
But the SFPD grounded its plainclothes teams citywide last month after an officer assigned to the team from Central Station shot an auto burglary suspect in a possible accidental or negligent discharge.
Scott said he’s seen things get worse in Fisherman’s Wharf since then.
“After the shooting, that’s when the brazenness really took off,” Scott said.
Officer Adam Lobsinger, a police spokesperson, said it will be up to Police Chief Bill Scott to decide when those plainclothes teams return.
In the meantime, Lobsinger said the SFPD is going to “continue to do prevention and enforcement and when we do make an arrest we are going to present the best case possible to the District Attorney.”
With arrests and prosecutions so low, authorities and merchants have turned to public information campaigns as another solution.
Police have run a “Park Smart!” campaign for years, warning residents and visitors to remove all valuables from their vehicles. More recently, the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District started posting signs on parking meters to warn drivers in the area, like the one Moronta saw.
Jeff and Sean Sears at Blazing Saddles decided to take matters into their own hands a couple months ago, when one particularly trouble car break-in left a family crying in their store. They started giving out signs for customers to place on their vehicles saying, “Please do not break in!”
But Jeff Sears still feels like more needs to be done.
“I don’t think that the people running The City really care about the tourism industry because if they did, they would put a lot of resources into it,” he said. “There needs to be consequences for doing this.”
By the numbers
Auto burglaries in San Francisco between Jan. 1 and June 6, 2021 compared to the year prior
Year-to-date 2020: 7,026
Year-to-date 2021: 6,911
Percent change: -1.64%
Year-to-date 2020: 858
Year-to-date 2021: 2048
Percent change: +138.69%
Source: San Francisco Police Department