The Mini-Panic Over SF Shoplifting | Libertarian Party of San Francisco

The Mini-Panic Over SF Shoplifting

Screen shot from a notorious video of a shoplifting incident at an SF Walgreens outlet taken June 14, 2021.

Since Chesa Boudin was narrowly elected (with the LPSF's support!) as San Francisco district attorney in November 2019 over the mayor's interim DA appointee Suzy Loftus, who was heavily backed by the San Francisco Police Officers Association (SFPOA) and other law enforcement interests, there have been plenty of folks unhappy with that outcome.

As in many locales, police in San Francisco had long enjoyed an improperly cozy relationship with prosecutors. Even Boudin's relatively liberal elected predecessor (and former police chief) George Gascon, never really seen as reliably in the SFPOA's corner during his time overseeing the SFPD, failed as DA to prosecute a single police officer for an unjustified shooting or any other abuse. This was despite occurrences like the gangland-style execution of Mario Woods by multiple SFPD officers in 2015.

Chesa Boudin has been a breath of fresh air in an office that badly needed reform. A former deputy public defender in the office built by the much-missed Jeff Adachi, he ran on a platform that emphasized issues like opposing mass incarceration, focusing on real (not victimless) crimes, ending cash bail, and holding police accountable. He has been as good as his word on this, enhancing civil liberties and saving taxpayer money via efforts such as getting the SF jail population reduced by around 25% by letting elderly inmates and those with medical conditions, charged with misdemeanors out early, requiring prosecutors to review all available evidence before charging any cases involving allegations of resisting, obstructing or assaulting police officers (charges often trumped up when police don't have any real cause to arrest someone, or want to make their life more difficult), and working with Supervisor Matt Haney to try to stop police officers with records of abuse from being hired, according to Wikipedia. The people who don't like him are upset with him in no small part because he is doing what he said he would do.

In seeking to remove Boudin via an upcoming recall election however, opponents have latched onto one issue in particular as an easier "sell" to San Francisco voters who might not be so enthused about a return to criminal justice "business as usual" – shoplifting. In this they were given a major media assist. While most of the mainstream media may lean to the left on many issues, when it comes to local petty crime their statism often has a more right-wing "tough-on-crime" flavor. ABC7 TV reporter Lyanne Melendez exemplified this when she pushed the shoplifting issue to the front burner on June 14 by tweeting a video of a brazen shoplifting incident at a Walgreens store in Hayes Valley. Without providing any evidence or context to support blaming the district attorney, she editorialized her tweet with the words "#NoConsequences @ChesaBoudin". According to Twitter, that video has now been viewed 6.2 million times.

Watching it raises some obvious questions, like "Why doesn't the store security guard make more than a half-hearted grab at the thief's bag as he rides his bicycle directly past him in a narrow store aisle toward the store exit, when almost anyone in that position making a serious effort could have easily blocked the getaway?"

The incident almost gives the impression of having been staged. If the security guard was afraid for his own safety (isn't being exposed to potential physical confrontations part of his job?), why wasn't he on the phone to 911, or calling for more backup from other store personnel, instead of just standing there watching as the thief swept items from store shelves into a large trash bag? Was this incident really about local criminal justice authorities falling down on the job, or was it about store management having some kind of "don't interfere" policy designed to avoid bad publicity or potential liability?

A Tech-Gate story about the incident reports that the man – subsequently taken into custody – had previously robbed the same store on four consecutive days earlier in the month, but that Walgreens declined to prosecute.

A district attorney can't prosecute anyone unless they are first identified, which generally means apprehending them. Some commenters have also tried to blame the perceived increase in shoplifting – more on that later – on the Black Lives Matter or police abuse reform movement which saw a major surge after the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020, arguing that cops are more afraid to make arrests now, lest they be accused of police brutality.

But unless police happen to be on the scene and catch a shoplifter in the act, it is usually store personnel who apprehend shoplifters, so this doesn't really offer a good excuse for what do appear to be low arrest rates in SF for this type of crime:

"...state and local crime clearance reports show the problem is not San Franciscans’ failure to report shoplifting to police, but the SFPD’s low rate (4.9 percent) of making arrests in reported thefts compared to police elsewhere in the state (10.5 percent)."

– From cjcj org/news/13165

Being arrested is a traumatic experience, typically costing arrestees time and money and affecting their records regardless of what happens afterward, so more SFPD arrests of shoplifters would presumably have some impact.

Nevertheless, despite the shocking Melendez video and some high-profile incidents of organized shoplifting, the rates for this crime in San Francisco are in fact still much lower than they were back in the 1980s, and have fallen further since 2019:

"The data shows police-reported shoplifting incidents that are from
pre-pandemic dates. Also looking even further back then pre-pandemic,
the data shows that shoplifting rates have been falling more or less
steadily since the 1980s.

According to the SF Chronicle, 710 shoplifting incidents were
reported in the city from January to April of 2021 in comparison to 933
shoplifting periods from the same period in 2019, an actual decrease."

– From davisvanguard org/2021/07/are-shoplifting-rates-in-san-francisco-rising-data-says-nope/

Some of the people who believe, despite the evidence, that shoplifting is way up in San Francisco, also like to blame state Proposition 47, the criminal justice reform measure that helped address the epidemic of mass incarceration by releasing some non-violent offenders from overcrowded jails.

But contrary to the myth that the law now lets people caught stealing goods worth less than $950 get off scot free, California statutes actually classify it as a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to six months in jail, in addition to potential civil liability to the store owner for:

• the retail value of the merchandise, if the property is not recovered in sellable condition
• damages of at least $50 but not more than $500, and
• costs of bringing the action.

– From criminaldefenselawyer com/resources/criminal-defense/crime-penalties/petty-theft-california-penalties-defense

While it's true that prosecution rates for shoplifting are down since the start of Covid not long after district attorney Boudin was elected, it's a bit of a stretch to hold him mainly responsible, as a July 9 San Francisco Examiner article shows:

The numbers show the prosecution rate for shoplifting cases involving
a misdemeanor petty theft charge for a loss of $950 or less fell under
Boudin, from 70 percent under former District Attorney George Gascon in
2019 to 44 percent in 2020 and 50 percent as of mid-June 2021.

Prosecutors filed charges in 116 of 266 cases presented by police
involving petty theft in 2020, compared to 450 of 647 cases in 2019,
according to the data provided by the District Attorney’s Office.

On the other hand, the prosecution rate for certain organized retail
theft cases remained between 81 and 84 percent under both Gascon and
Boudin between 2019 and 2021.

The office charged 35 of the 43 organized retail theft cases presented in 2020,
compared to 21 of the 25 cases in 2019...

Boudin said the decline in prosecution rates for shoplifting cases is
a reflection of the “difficult choices” his office had to make during
the pandemic, when the Hall of Justice closed most of its courtrooms and
city officials decided to largely empty the jails, in part to prevent
an outbreak.

“We made an intentional decision to prioritize crimes involving
violence, injury to human beings and use of weapons,” Boudin said.

– From SFExaminer com/news/data-shows-chesa-boudin-prosecutes-fewer-shoplifters-than-predecessor/

So if you're inclined to blame Chesa Boudin, which of the following alternative courses of action do you think he should have taken?

• Prioritizing the prosecution of petty theft over crimes involving violence?
• Trying to force the courts to reopen their courtrooms to enable more prosecutions, and the sheriffs to refill the jails, risking Covid outbreaks?
• Violating the Constitution by somehow prosecuting people without due process?

Meanwhile, while shoplifting in San Francisco has decreased in recent decades, homelessness is way, way up. Which must be a bit of a head-scratcher if you think homeless people are disproportionately the ones to blame for such petty crime.

More to the point though, what should concern us more as a society?

Petty theft, whether organized or by individuals, from retail establishments of property worth less than $950 per offense?; or

Organized State robbery in the form of taxes, often many thousands of dollars a year per victim, that leave people with fewer resources to help themselves and their families and exacerbate poverty?

In humanitarian terms, which is the greater problem that we should be more concerned over?

While it's frustrating to see blatant, repeated shoplifting from stores occurring in the community, which ultimately means higher prices for everyone, libertarians should resist the agenda – often pushed by conservatives – of just inflicting harsher punishments on the residents committing these thefts. Asking government to put more people behind bars for longer terms tends to be far costlier to the public. Not to mention a far greater threat to freedom.

We should not let this largely manufactured panic over shoplifting cause us to vote out a district attorney who is pursuing real, valuable reforms.

Screen shot from a notorious video of a shoplifting incident at an SF Walgreens outlet taken June 14, 2021.