Why Crime Is Out Of Control in San Francisco
San Franciscans Get What They Voted for With Chesa Boudin
This oped was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on November 28, 2021.
When Chesa Boudin ran for San Francisco district attorney in 2019, he said crime was caused by poverty, wealth inequality and inadequate government spending on social programs. He called prostitution, open drug use and drug dealing “victimless crimes” and promised not to prosecute them. The result has been an increase in crime so sharp that San Francisco’s liberal residents are now paying for private security guards, taking self-defense classes, and supporting a recall of Mr. Boudin, with a vote set for June 2022. Retailers like Walgreens and Target are closing stores in the city, citing rampant shoplifting. Last week, a shockingly organized mob of looters ransacked a downtown Louis Vuitton store.
Mr. Boudin and his defenders say crime in San Francisco has actually declined under his watch. The store closings had little to do with shoplifting, they insist; Walgreens announced in 2019 it would close stores as a cost-saving measure. And after the Louis Vuitton looting, Mr. Boudin talked tough on Twitter : “Standby for felony charges.” Indeed, some crimes did decline, but for Covid-related reasons, while many other offenses increased. The pandemic crimped tourism, which meant fewer car break-ins and less shoplifting, but both are now on the rise. Car break-ins were 75% higher in May 2021 than in 2019, before the pandemic.
While it’s true that official incidents of shoplifting haven’t increased under Mr. Boudin, the punishment has changed—and the bad guys appear to have gotten the message. In 2019, 40% of all shoplifting reports resulted in arrest; in 2021, under Mr. Boudin, only 19% did. Walgreens says shoplifting is five times as high, and security costs 50 times as high, in its San Francisco stores as the chainwide average.
Meantime, the charging rate for theft by Mr. Boudin’s office declined from 62% in 2019 to 46% in 2021; for petty theft it fell from 58% to 35%. San Francisco’s jail population has plummeted to 766 in 2021 from 2,850 in 2019. More than half of all offenders, and three-quarters of the most violent ones, who are released from jail before trial commit new crimes.
Like other progressive prosecutors around the country, Mr. Boudin has expressed great antipathy toward the police. At his election-night party, a supporter led the crowd in a chant against the Police Officers’ Association: “F— the POA! F— the POA!” The San Francisco Police Department is short 400 officers and demoralized. A security video obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle last week appeared to show officers allowing a robbery of a marijuana dispensary. Total narcotics arrests declined by half from 2019 to 2021.
Mr. Boudin has increased charges for some crimes. The charging rate for rape rose from 43% to 53%, and for narcotics dealing from 47% to 60%, even as it declined for theft, illegal weapons and assault. He appears to be following through on his promise to ignore quality-of-life crimes, but it’s also the case that the state has ordered local prosecutors to reduce prosecution of such crimes because of Covid.
The solution to San Francisco’s problems is relatively straightforward. The city needs to shut down the drug scene by working with the federal government to deport dealers who are here illegally, most of whom are from Honduras; arrest addicts who camp and use drugs publicly and offer them rehab as an alternative to jail; and redevelop the squalid Tenderloin neighborhood, which, because of the influx of out-of-town addicts, fosters depravity and criminality affecting the entire city.
The situation has degenerated to the point that an opportunity exists for moderates to wrest power away from progressives like Mr. Boudin and implement a sweeping, common-sense political agenda. What’s not clear is whether most San Franciscans want to do this, or could do it alone, without the involvement of California’s state government, which is sitting on a $31 billion budget surplus.
San Francisco is an uberliberal place, and Mr. Boudin is only the latest in a long line of progressive prosecutors. In the mid-1990s voters elected Terence Hallinan, who had a history of illegal drug use and promised to stop arrests of street addicts and prostitutes. When Mr. Boudin blamed crime on inequality in 2019, his message landed on sympathetic ears. When he said he wouldn’t prosecute victimless crimes, he was singing a familiar hymn.
It may be that Mr. Boudin went too far, even for San Francisco’s progressive voters, with his statements justifying crime and demonizing the police. But if history is any guide, they won’t have learned anything more from the experiment in lawlessness than they did from the one in the mid-1990s, and will almost certainly repeat it.
Mr. Shellenberger is the author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.”
It is really impossible to tell what the impact of Mr. Boudin's policies are on crime as he took office just before Covid hit. But he promised to reduce carceration (the amount of people in jail) and reduce violent crime. According to the SFPD dashboards and the FBI he did this, albeit modestly. Murders are up 15% from an 70 year low in 2019, but they are up 30% in the average of the 25 largest cities in America. Property crime is overall up, especially burglaries.
There is an effort to recall him, financed mostly by a $2.5M in GOP and out of town money from a PAC called "Citizens for a Better San Francisco." Due to the reporting requirements of PACs, we won't know the funding until December but we do know who gave to them in 2020. The first attempt to gather signatures to recall him failed. It was a more grassroots effort. Even in San Francisco, $2.5M is a lot to spend on signature gatherers.
The leaders of the recall movement are pretty far out of the mainstream of San Francisco politics. One of the leaders, Susan Reynolds accused Scott Wiener of being a pedophile for his support of AB 145. This was an act that normalized penalties for vaginal and anal and oral sex among young adults and teens. [https://sd11.senate.ca.gov/sb145] As Scott told me, "I am against the recall, which is led by the worst San Franciscans. As you know, I did not endorse or vote for Boudin, but he is doing the job that San Franciscans sent him there to do. A recall is not appropriate here and should be reserved for the most egregious of circumstances." It should be noted that Scott does endorse the recall of three members of the Board of Education.
I predict that the Moderates in San Francisco (the "conservative" wing of San Francisco politics, who are all liberal Democrats) will sit this one out, while the "Progressives" (the group further to the left), will all support Boudin. I am a long time observer and participant in SF politics, having knocked on doors and manned phone banks since at least 1993. This one is still to early to call, but its odds are pretty long.
I personally feel that Boudin should get a chance in a more normal post-Covid world to try and implement his policies, which are novel. The current criminal justice system is rife with corruption, cronyism and blatant discrimination and that is a national problem, not just a local thing. Public sector unions just don't have the public's best interest in mind, and this is particularly a problem with Police Unions who have so much power. I am skeptical that Boudin can change things, but he got elected to give it a try and he should get that chance.