We fact checked the most common claims about San Francisco crime

January 7, 2022

If you’re a Bay Area resident, you’ve likely had to participate in a conversation with someone about San Francisco crime.

High-profile retail thefts, an emergency declaration in the Tenderloin and a looming district attorney recall election have made crime a hot topic, with many quick to make sweeping statements about crime rates, District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the city as a whole.

Below is a guide providing context — and fact checks — to some of the most frequently made claims made about crime in San Francisco.

Claim: Crime in San Francisco is rising

If someone is referring to general levels of crime over the past few years, this claim is not backed up by data — but there are some caveats to be discussed later. Below is a look at the total number of crimes reported to the San Francisco Police Department over the past five years. All figures come from the department’s crime dashboard.

The number of reported crimes plummeted in 2020 after COVID-19 brought life to a standstill for months, but increased in 2021. If the claim is that general levels of crime increased in 2021 when compared with 2020, that claim is supported by the numbers. Total reports over the past five years trend down, which brings us to …

Claim: Crime in San Francisco is way down when compared to past years, actually

This is a claim that, while seemingly backed up by data, is impossible to verify given reporting issues for crimes that make up the bulk of the total reported incidents in the city.

Many property crimes in the city go unreported, making it difficult to gauge the level of decline. For retail theft specifically — classified as larceny theft in the city data, a category that typically makes up more than half of the city’s total reported incidents — many stores have said it is not worth reporting thefts to police.

“Nobody reports shoplifting [to the police],” Rick Karp, president of Cole Hardware, told SFGATE in December. “It’s a waste of time, and the best thing that happens is the police write a report and file it away someplace. Nothing happens.”

Karp’s sentiments are not off-base; San Francisco police say they “cleared” (meaning an arrest was made and suspects turned over to courts for prosecution) 2.4% of larceny theft cases last year. 

At the very least, retail theft certainly seems to have gotten more brazen, and leaders at both the city and state level have stepped up enforcement against groups purported to be behind large scale smash-and-grabs.

Rapes, robberies and assaults are still well below pre-pandemic levels, and because violent crime is generally less likely to go unreported than property crimes, it would not be inaccurate to say that general levels of violent crime are lower now than they were a few years ago. There were the same number of homicides in 2017 and 2021, but burglaries (which require unlawful entry of a structure to commit a theft) and motor vehicle thefts have increased — and even exceed pre-pandemic levels (though both decreased in 2021 after spiking in 2020).

Claim: Crime in San Francisco is worse than it is in other cities

When compared with other large cities in the United States, San Francisco typically has similar rates of violent crime, but higher rates of property crime. 

Claim: California’s Proposition 47 is to blame for increased theft

California’s Proposition 47, passed by voters in 2014, has come under intense scrutiny as it reclassified felony theft offenses as misdemeanors if the value of stolen goods is less than $950. The proposition did not, as some critics say, “legalize” theft, as all theft suspects can still be prosecuted.

A Public Policy Institute of California study from 2018 found “some evidence” that Proposition 47 may have been linked to an increase in larceny theft across the state, largely fueled by thefts of items from motor vehicles. There was a brief increase in shoplifting reports, but it quieted down not long after.

“The average monthly number of reported shoplifting incidents stayed relatively flat, between 7,800 and 8,100 per month, in the years before Prop 47 passed,” the authors write. “It then jumped up to 9,000 in November 2014 and reached a seven-year high of 9,900 in January 2015. The post-reform one year average of 9,050 is about 12 percent higher than the one-year pre-reform average. However, shoplifting decreased notably in 2016, when the monthly numbers dropped to pre-reform levels. It is possible that the 2016 drop in shoplifting reflects increased law enforcement efforts responding to retailers’ substantiated concerns, retailers’ own increased theft prevention, or simply a decline in the likelihood of reporting shoplifting.”

separate 2019 study conducted by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics had similar findings. It’s worth pointing out that some Republican-led states with stricter crime policies have higher felony theft thresholds. In Texas, for example, that line is drawn at $2,500.

Claim: Chesa Boudin is to blame for rising San Francisco crime

Boudin, the city’s highly polarizing district attorney, took office at the start of 2020. 

As stated earlier, reports of violent crimes such as rape, robbery and assault are at lower levels now than they were before Boudin took office. Homicides have ticked up under Boudin’s tenure (the city saw 56 homicides in 2017, 46 in 2018, 41 in 2018, 48 in 2020 and 56 in 2021), but homicides have increased nationally over the past two years and data from the University of Pennsylvania shows that San Francisco’s 2020 increase did not outpace other cities.

San Francisco’s increase in burglaries, however, did outpace the rest of the country. But how much of that is a result of Boudin or his policies, which include the elimination of cash bail and the reduction of pretrial incarceration?

He has blamed the burglary surge on economic conditions brought on by the pandemic and has also noted that he can only bring charges after police have made arrests. As stated earlier, San Francisco police say they cleared just 2.4% of larceny theft cases in 2021. They cleared 10.3% of burglary cases, and 7.2% of motor vehicle theft cases. All are down slightly from 2020.

Boudin’s office says he brought charges in 72% of larceny theft cases, 79% of burglary cases and 53% of motor vehicle theft cases in 2021. His filing rates for those crimes are generally in line with his predecessor George Gascon, as is his overall filing rate.

For a deeper dive on Boudin’s record, you can read our analysis.

Claim: San Francisco’s decision to ‘defund the police’ led to a spike in crime

After the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Mayor London Breed announced plans to redirect $120 million from the city’s law enforcement budget to investments in the Black community. An investigation from SF Weekly found that the “defunding” never actually happened, as law enforcement spending increased and funding for new investments came from other sources.

The sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office and probation departments all saw increased budgets. While the San Francisco Police Department did see a slight cut in its budget, SF Weekly reported that “those cuts can nearly all be attributed to decreased demand for police at the airport,” and that “in the following fiscal year, the city projects the police budget will increase once again to $689 million,” which is “close to the police budget’s all-time high of $692 million” from two years prior.

Claim: Hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked in San Francisco

Statistics show that hate crimes against Asian American have spiked not only in San Francisco, but also statewide and nationally.

Claim: The San Francisco Police Department is getting worse at making arrests

Generally, the department’s arrest rates have gradually declined over the past five years across all crimes.

In response to falling arrest rates, Breed announced a three-pronged plan in September to beef up SFPD’s response to retail theft. There were more larceny theft cases reported in the three-month period between October and December than there were in the three-month period between July and August, but one of the plan’s stated goals is increasing the number of reports.

Claim: The San Francisco Police Department is understaffed

The department’s leaders and its police union have been making this claim for years, even though the city employs more police officers per capita than Oakland and Los Angeles.

A 2020 study conducted by an outside consultant hired by the city found merit to their complaints, recommending the city hire more officers to combat slow response times to emergency calls (it took officers more than three hours to respond to a third of calls). Breed has also called for an increase in staffing.

Claim: Increased policing would mean less crime

It depends on what someone means by “increased policing.” Most studies show that when cities add more police officers, crime tends to go down, but that increased incarceration and tough-on-crime policies for petty misdemeanors have less of an impact.

For more on what tends to reduce, or not reduce crime, you can read our breakdown of the research.