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Herd journalism and the phony San Francisco “shoplifting epidemic”

The national media is crusading to brand San Francisco a nightmarish dystopia of rampant shoplifting and crime during the very years, 2020 and 2021, the city’s real crime rates (including for shoplifting) fell to near-record lows. Organized retail theft is a national problem, and Walgreens is closing hundreds of stores, not just in San Francisco.

No matter. Whenever a property crime occurs anywhere in the Bay Area, reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, ABC News, Newsweek, and a raft of others along with smirking pundits join the stampede. That some stores in San Francisco, a city with one of the nation’s highest retail densities and whose daily population is swollen by approximately 30,000 to 70,000 visitors, would report upticks in theft as the holiday season approaches only fuels more destructive stereotyping.

Whether this media crusade is hurting tourism and promoting the crime it clucks over (is the media openly inviting shoplifters here?), the city has every interest in redirecting the journalistic herd to moo somewhere else.

Fortunately, the facts – the things so-called “skeptical” reporters are supposed to worship, such as in recent, more responsible articles pushing back against the panic – suggest a much better target for the media’s shoplifting and crime sensationalism: Bakersfield.

Yes, Bakersfield, the get-tough, conservative capital of California, in one of the few counties (Kern) that still votes staunchly Republican and installs law-and-order stalwarts in high office. When critics of San Francisco’s supposedly lenient, “no consequences” response to crime – inflamed by “viral videos” of brazen shoplifting and declarations that rampant theft is forcing Walgreens to close stores -- imagine the tough-on-crime prosecutorial regime they’d like, they must be thinking of places like Kern County.

San Francisco and Kern County have similar populations but very different crime policies. As of January 2021, Kern County had 5,311 people locked up in local jails, state prisons, and youth detention facilities, nearly four times more than San Francisco. San Francisco has cut its incarcerated numbers by 60 percent since 2010, double the pace of prisoner and inmate reductions by Kern County.

Now, the bottom line. Figure 1 compares shoplifting rates in recent decades in supposedly crime-tolerant San Francisco with those of get-tough Kern County:

Figure 1. Shoplifting crimes per 100,000 population, 1990-2020

Sources: California Department of Justice, Open Justice (2021), California Department of Finance (2021).

That’s right: other than Kern’s shoplifting surge from 2011 to 2015, these two very different areas have virtually identical, generally downward trends in shoplifting. Of course, property crimes are under-reported in both counties, but whose fault is that? Retailers have no grounds to blame the district attorney and justice system for failing to apprehend, prosecute, and punish perpetrators they don’t bother to report to police.

But what about the big crimes like homicide and other violent offenses? Kern County’s violent crime rate is 24 percent higher than San Francisco’s, including a homicide rate more than twice as high. Add the fact that Kern’s shoplifting rate is now 23 percent higher, and it becomes clear that get-tough, anti-crime crackdowns are not a panacea.

In fact, there were good reasons for California policy makers and those in responsible jurisdictions like San Francisco to take steps to reduce the number of people in prisons to address court mandates to fix unconstitutional overcrowding. At a cost of over $100,000 to imprison one person for one year, Kern County’s high imprisonment rate costs state taxpayers some $270 million more every year than do San Francisco’s imprisonments.

Some might point out that Kern County’s worse economic status probably drives its higher rates of homicide and violence more than its crime strategies. Kern County’s per-capita income is $23,300 per year and 19.9 percent of its population lives below federal poverty guidelines, compared to $68,900 and 9.5 percent, respectively, in San Francisco.

However, economic analysis only reinforces the conclusion that San Francisco’s crime policies, whether characterized as lenient or pragmatically tailored to prioritize violent and serious offenses, are not the key issue in the city’s crime situation. In the meantime, where’s the media stampede to brand Bakersfield as California’s crime dystopia?

Keywords: crime trends, Mike Males, San Francisco

Posted in Blog

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