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The New York Times fabricates a nonexistent shoplifting wave in San Francisco, then wrongly blames it on criminal justice reforms and the city’s supposed soft-on-crime image

Figure 1. San Francisco shoplifting reports per 100,000 population, 1975-2020Sources: California DOJ (2021); California Department of Finance (2021).

San Francisco’s rate of property crimes – including shoplifting (Figure 1) – has plummeted to its lowest level since reliable crime statistics were first compiled 45 years ago. That’s a cause for celebration, right?

Apparently not. Ignoring these clear trends, the May 21, 2021, “California Today” column by the New York Times’ San Francisco Bureau Chief Thomas Fuller declared in alarming tones: “The mundane crime of shoplifting has spun out of control in San Francisco, forcing some chain stores to close.”

Fuller’s evidence? Anecdotes, quips, and claims from spokespersons for Walgreens that thefts from its stores in San Francisco are “four times the chain’s national average, and that it had closed 17 stores, largely because the scale of thefts had made business untenable,” and from CVS branding the city “one of the epicenters of organized retail crime.” In fact, Walgreens is closing hundreds of stores nationwide in a cost-cutting measure, and the trend toward fewer but larger retail thefts is occurring statewide, not just in San Francisco. Since 2016, thefts valued at $400 or more have risen by 19 percent, while thefts valued at under $50 have fallen by 21 percent.

Why did the New York Times see fit to print an article sensationalizing San Francisco’s supposed “surge” in shoplifting that Fuller claims has worsened since he moved to the city in 2016? “The retail executives and police officers emphasized the role of organized crime in the thefts. And they told the supervisors that Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reclassified nonviolent thefts as misdemeanors if the stolen goods are worth less than $950, had emboldened thieves,” Fuller wrote.

“The one trend we are seeing is more violence and escalating — and much more bold,” said Commander Raj Vaswani, the head of the investigations bureau at the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). “We see a lot of repeat offenders.”

In fact, San Francisco’s rates of violent and property crime peaked in 1992 and have since fallen

Viswani’s statements are strange, to say the least. The SFPD’s (2021) own reports show no increase in shoplifting, nor in the broader categories of theft that include shoplifting. In fact, property crimes have been plummeting in the city for nearly 30 years, as have violent crimes.

Figure 2. Rates of reported shoplifting per 100,000 population in California’s 15 largest cities

Sources: California DOJ (2021); California Department of Finance (2021).

Figure 1 shows that while shoplifting reports have fluctuated over the last decade, the overall trend is stable and stands at historically low levels. Nor, as Figure 2 shows, does San Francisco have an out-of-control rate of shoplifting. In the most recent comparable year, 2019, San Francisco’s rate of reported shoplifting ranked fifth highest among the state’s 15 largest cities and was lower than rates for Stockton, Riverside, Bakersfield, and Fresno. Though San Francisco’s shoplifting levels are higher than California’s average, the city had 26.5 million tourists in 2019 (around four times more visitors per resident than the rest of the state), which means that the city’s crime rate is boosted more by visitor offenses than elsewhere.

There are good reasons to question the San Francisco Police Department’s performance

Why is the New York Times crediting two large retailers, one police official, and one supervisor claiming shoplifting is surging to “out of control” levels while ignoring overall numbers showing shoplifting has fallen to the lowest level in decades? There is no perfect measure of crime, but the major discrepancies between alarmist assertions and the SFPD’s and state Department of Justice’s declining-crime numbers merited resolving before publication.

SFPD crime statistics also show that suddenly, from 2016 to 2017, thefts of items valued at $50 or more leaped nearly eight-fold, from 3,600 to nearly 28,000, while thefts of items valued at under $50 plunged by half, from 34,300 to 17,400. What accounts for such huge changes in one year – or were these artificial reporting adjustments? What do trends toward increasing value per theft (if accurate) amid declining theft numbers suggest about emerging crime patterns? They certainly don’t suggest that criminal justice reforms, which are aimed at individuals, are failing. The perpetual blaming of Proposition 47 and other criminal justice reforms implemented five to 10 years ago for every local uptick (or imagined uptick) in crime has not proven valid when analyzed. In particular, opponents of reform continue to assert the specter of a new breed of calculator-toting thieves cleverly limiting their pilfering to just under the $950 felony threshold – an implausible trend they nowhere document.

On the politics of that issue, Fuller raises what he calls “a crucial question” that he then fails to answer: “Why San Francisco? If the [increased shoplifting] problem stems in part from a change in California law, why aren’t other cities in the state seeing similar spikes in shoplifting?” That’s an excellent question. Unfortunately, instead of analyzing it, Fuller quotes speculations – again, without evidence – citing an alleged “laissez-faire attitude in San Francisco” toward shoplifting.

Yet, 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). Fuller’s quip-sourced article manufacturing a nonexistent shoplifting wave and then baselessly blaming the supposed failure of criminal justice reforms does not rise to the standards one expects of the New York Times.


Keywords: crime trends, justice reform era, Mike Males, Prop 47, San Francisco

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