With over 15,000 car break-ins since January, it’s not new for San Franciscans to be, or know, a victim of an auto burglary. If they live in a tourist area, it is even more likely they have watched from their windows as thieves arrive in stolen cars, by daylight, breaking windows, grabbing the vehicle’s contents and speeding away to do it again.

A crime heat map of San Francisco shows numbers of auto burglaries between January and July 2023. (SFPD via Bay City News)

With a goal of finding new avenues to address the epidemic, Supervisor Dean Preston called a public hearing of the Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee on Thursday.

The goal was to learn who’s doing the crime, what’s being done and what’s not working. Also present were Supervisors Connie Chan and Catherine Stefani. They spoke with representatives from the San Francisco Police Department, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

Among San Francisco’s efforts to combat vehicle break-ins was its 2017 “Park Smart” campaign that included signs warning people not to leave valuables in their cars. (City of San Francisco)

“Despite various announcements and efforts regarding new initiatives to combat the issue,” Preston said, “the city has made no noticeable progress.”

Some of those initiatives include a 2017 signage program, called Park Smart, that warns people to not leave belongings in their cars. Another was a 2021 campaign to offer cash rewards for information about groups engaged in the resale of stolen goods.

Preston criticized the signs for being in English-only, and brought forth a new letter from the District Attorney’s Office saying no rewards for information have been paid to date. He started the hearing by asking the police to present their most recent data and describe any patterns.

How auto burglars operate

Derrick Jackson, commander of field operations with the San Francisco Police Department, listed several findings including multiple thieves per vehicle, that they operate in daylight hours and they often target tourist areas. Suspects use counter-surveillance and attempts to identify undercover police operations, and following the break-ins, the suspects usually speed away, he said.

San Francisco’s police are not allowed to engage in a high-speed chase for stolen goods.

“Really the best protection is to not leave any valuables in the car.”

Lt. Stephen Jonas, San Francisco Police Department

“It’s my experience that one suspect, working as part of a group, could be responsible for several dozen auto burglaries in one day,” Jackson said.

“Really the best protection is to not leave any valuables in the car,” added Lt. Stephen Jonas, who is in charge of the department’s plainclothes operations.

Jackson reported that from January to May of this year, there were 37 people arrested and 14 firearms recovered in plainclothes operations.

Chan, who represents the Richmond District, asked what she should tell her merchants and residents to do. Jonas said citizens make the best witnesses, so people should capture descriptions, share surveillance video, and if it’s safe, take photos or videos and call 911.

Streets covered in broken car window glass have become so ubiquitous in some parts of the city that it is often referred to by locals as “San Francisco Snow.” (Toby Webster/Flickr, CC BY)

Looking for solutions

Preston was visibly frustrated as he tried to draw recommendations from the meeting. Preston asked Jackson if the police were having regular monthly or weekly meetings with other departments outside of law enforcement. Jackson said not regularly.

“There’s a lack of coordinated response,” Preston said, “and I think that has prevented us from making more progress and prevented us even from having a shared understanding across departments of what strategies are being deployed, what data we have, and how we are measuring success and holding ourselves accountable when it comes to this long-standing problem.”

One recommendation that may come from Preston is for regularly scheduled meetings and greater coordination between different departments, including the District Attorney’s Office, Recreation and Park Department and the SFMTA.

Other possible changes to come may include newly designed public signs that communicate with pictures, so they can be read by non-English speakers; new digital warning messages that pop-up on Pay-to-Park apps and parking meter screens; more downtown ambassadors warning tourists not to leave belongings in their cars; more streamlined systems for returning stolen property to victims; and efforts to hire more law enforcement.