In Union Square looting, are we seeing a rip in civil society?

The shocking videos only tell part of the story

San Francisco is having a moment.

Just not the kind you want.

The viral videos keep rolling in. It started with the bicycling shoplifter at Walgreens, loading up his bag and rolling blissfully out the door while everyone stood aside and watched him go.

That clip was played on national networks a thousand times (and probably 2,000 on Fox News). Now we have what I suppose is the logical outgrowth of the they’re-not-going-to-do-anything-if-we-walk-in-and-take-stuff mentality — mobs doing smash and grabs.

The recent shocking videos of the Union Square looting have been on constant replay on network TV. And it is more than a little disconcerting to see talking heads on the East Coast telling us, confidently and authoritatively, what our problems are.

The book “San Fransicko” has been getting some play, pointing (or giving) the finger to The City. Dour columnist George Will, among others, was moved to weigh in on the troubles here after scanning the book.

You can guess what most of them think. After all, the subtitle of San Fransicko is “Why Progressives Ruin Cities.” Too soft on crime. The progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, refuses to put criminals in jail.

“What do you expect?” they say. “It’s San Francisco.”

And there’s something to that, but The City’s problems go deeper than rampant shoplifting. We will get to that.

But first, let’s not underestimate what Nov. 19’s looting means to San Francisco.

Union Square was already becoming Plywood Square. The Gap, H&M, Marshall’s, Uniglo and DSW have all closed. And not until the pandemic is over. They are shut for good.

How do you think the other high-end businesses are going to react when their store is ransacked by looters? Or if they see the videos of it happening?

Right now, many of them are paying $1,000 a day for an armed guard at the door. Did you ever think that would happen in one of the most exclusive shopping districts in the world?

Shopping at Union Square is a huge draw for tourists. What would it mean to the No. 1 driver of the local economy — tourism — if the stores cleared out?

Think about that while the videos keep coming. The sight of looters, running out of broken glass doors, arms full of swag, have become commonplace.

It turns out the business of theft pays pretty well. In fact, police officers say they are seeing something new in the illegal drug market — a career change.

Dealing drugs is an inherently dangerous way to make money. You get your product from someone who could be paranoid and violent. And you sell to clients who are often unstable and unpredictable.

Far better, it appears, to steal stuff, particularly electronics, which can be converted to cash almost instantly. So some of the dealers are changing occupations — from dealing to stealing.

In California it makes sense because of Prop. 47, which was passed in 2014.

Many people have attempted to explain to me why Prop. 47 does not encourage theft and crime, but I’ve never been convinced.

The idea, as you probably remember, is that anyone caught with stolen property with a value of less than $950 is charged with a misdemeanor, not a felony.

The idea was to fix the “three strikes” law. The problem was someone’s third strike might be shoplifting a toothbrush, and that would still send them to prison.

At least some of the supporters of Prop. 47 were under the impression that the crimes of repeat offenders could be bundled together. So if caught multiple times, the value of the stolen property would be more than $950 and the criminal could be charged with a felony.

But the way the proposition is written, each offense has been treated separately.

“So,” a former high-ranking police officer said this week, “you could literally get caught stealing $949 worth of stuff a day and it never becomes a felony.”

Boudin, by the way, is doing the right thing with the looters.

“Stand by for felony charges,” he tweeted the night the break-ins happened.

On Tuesday he followed through, announcing he was filing felony charges against five accused Union Square looters. If convicted, they will face significant jail time, which would not be true with misdemeanor charges.

“These are not petty thefts,” Boudin said at a press conference. “This is not misdemeanor conduct. This is felony conduct.”

And because the attacks were clearly carefully planned, Boudin may also charge them with conspiracy, also a felony.

This brings up another problem that is likely to contribute to a rise in property crime.

In an attempt to reduce prison overcrowding, California enacted AB 109 in 2011. The idea was to take non-violent, lower-level offenders out of the prison system and out them into local county jails or on probation.

But the result has been drastically shorter incarceration terms. Where a serious misdemeanor conviction before AB 109 might have resulted in a year in confinement (which usually worked out to six months or less), now offenders may only serve what is called a “flash incarceration” of 10 days.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott often has talked about career criminals — “This is their job,” Scott says. And he also often points out that when serial thieves are taken off the street for a period of time, the downtick in crimes is noticeable.

Typically, a misdemeanor conviction and short stay in county jail will hardly make a dent in street crime. The Public Policy Institute of California found in 2015 that AB 109 led to reduced jail time and some increase in property crime.

Boudin often talks about keeping people out of jail or prison. That you can’t reform someone behind bars.

It’s a noble thought. But when you have an offender getting arrested and convicted over and over, but serving almost no jail time, you’ve got a recipe for social disorder.

Because we know those chilling videos from Union Square are only part of the story. People in The City know that property crime is a real and serious problem.

And watching those clips, it is easy to imagine that we were seeing a rip in civil society. That this is a city utterly out of control.

This is “last straw” stuff, where businesses, tourists and residents say they are done, finished with San Francisco.

That can’t happen.

This is a new phase. We need to take these property crimes, and the laws that abet them, seriously.

Right now we have everyone’s attention.

So what are we going to do?

Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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