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San Francisco police joined Mayor London Breed on Wednesday to unveil a new initiative that aims to address rampant retail theft happening in the city — as well as the criminal organizations driving the thefts.

The new Organized Retail Crime Initiative is in response to rising retail thefts and partners with local retailers and other local law enforcement agencies to strengthen reporting and investigations.

The issue of retail thefts in San Francisco has gotten increased attention after videos of brazen thefts in the city were posted online and went viral earlier this year.

“What we’ve seen in terms of thefts and burglaries has been definitely frustrating,” Breed said during a briefing at San Francisco Police Department headquarters on Wednesday. “The videos that have gone viral don’t necessarily tell the full story about what’s happening in San Francisco.”

According to Breed, retail thefts are not victimless crimes, as the mounting thefts have ultimately resulted in some businesses deciding to limit store hours or leave the city altogether.

A shoplifting suspect on a bicycle calmly rides to the exit of a San Francisco Walgreens store in a scene from a viral video that has come to symbolize the city’s problem with rising retail thefts. (Image via YouTube)

“When these stores decide they don’t want to do business in this city and they close, people lose their jobs. When the pharmacies decide ‘we’re going to close in this neighborhood because we have too many challenges with thefts,’ the senior and folks who depend on the medications from those pharmacies, they lose. The community loses,” she said.

The new initiative consists of several elements, including expanding the Police Department’s Organized Retail Crime Unit from two investigators to six; working more closely with the California Highway Patrol’s Organized Retail Crime Task Force; recruiting more retired police officers to patrol neighborhoods as part of the SFPD Community Ambassadors Program; and strengthening the Teleserv Unit, a phone and online crime reporting service implemented during the pandemic.

“These crimes are underreported,” SFPD Police Chief Bill Scott said.

“We encourage everyone to report these crimes as soon as they happen so we know where to put our resources and we can work together on that,” he said. “So, we do expect to see an increase (in these crimes) because of better reporting.”

“When these stores decide they don’t want to do business in this city and they close, people lose their jobs. … The community loses.”

Mayor London Breed

Scott added, “Everybody is impacted by this. Retailers have had to make adjustments… locking up merchandise, particularly merchandise that is frequently stolen. And that affects our experience as well, so we have to do a better job.”

Back in June, cellphone video that captured a man calmly stealing merchandise from a Hayes Valley Walgreens. Although a security guard tried to stop the suspect, the suspect was able to brush past him and fled the store on a bicycle with the merchandise.

The video was widely shared and the suspect, 40-year-old Jean Lugo Romero, was swiftly arrested and charged with robbery, burglary and grand theft, among other charges, in connection with the Walgreens robbery as well as seven other shoplifting incidents.

The viral video sparked an online debate about the efficacy of local laws on shoplifting, including 2014‘s California voter-approved Proposition 47, which reclassified some crimes, like shoplifting, from felonies to misdemeanors.