SF's crime debate turns nasty

The city keeps making national news. But not the right kind.

Maybe the best way to look at this debate is to focus on shoplifting.

You’ve probably noticed that there’s an unpleasant little spitting match going on in San Francisco when it comes to law and order and crime.

A group of residents, often long-time San Franciscans, is shocked by the lawlessness of car break-ins, robbery and shoplifting. Take Stories like this where a mother of three, co-owner of Tony Baloney’s deli, was severely beaten when she tried to stop a brazen shoplifter. It’s infuriating.

In response, there are critics — some of whom clearly see the complaints as part of persistent attacks on District Attorney Chesa Boudin — who say the whole crime anxiety is overwrought. And, they say, they have data to show that criminal activity is not getting worse.

We had a little window into the fuss this week in the Twitter-verse.

A woman named Michelle Tandler posted a Tweet lamenting that “every single one of my friends is considering leaving SF.” She added that “My friends are scared for their children and their husbands are scared for their wives.”

And for some reason, Kate Chatfield, who is a senior director on DA Boudin’s staff, thought this would be a good time for a public official to take a shot at a local resident. Chatfield said the “Husbands are scared for their wives,” was right out of the famously racist film, “Birth of a Nation,” which portrays the Ku Klux Klan as heroes.

Chatfield added, “Your reminder that the ‘crime surge’ crowd shares the same ideology as “The Birth of the Nation.”

Uh yeah. When you open a debate by comparing a concerned citizen to the KKK, the chances of a civilized discourse declines dramatically.

And sure enough, that triggered a lot of the “Recall Chesa Boudin” people. Also Fox News, which gleefully ran a story with the headline: San Francisco DA official says crime surge fears linked to racism.” (Chatfield, by the way, has since locked her Twitter account.)

And we were off. Lots of heated rhetoric, including a minor Tweet-storm from a “communications strategist,” whose Tweets became more and more insulting and aggressive, including the old favorite, “move to Hillsborough or Walnut Creek.”

And at that point we’d gone full circle. Tandler suggested her friends are so unhappy they might leave and the other side saying, “We’ll help you pack.”

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Which brings us back to shoplifting. In a lot of ways, the uproar over that is the entire brouhaha in a microcosm.

Back on June 26 the Chronicle ran a data-driven story that concluded the shoplifting epidemic “may be overblown.” It reported that shoplifting incidents are below what they were before the beginning of the pandemic.

So there you have it. Nothing to see here. All you Nervous Nellies are over-reacting.

To which I’d say two things:

First, it has become an open secret that many stores have stopped confronting shoplifters. I did a column probably five years ago on Safeway, which was basically letting people walk out with goods, rather than risk a fistfight. CVS and Walgreen’s have both told employees not to confront thieves if there is a chance of violence.

So I’d suggest that part of the reason reported incidents have decreased is that stores don’t bother. They aren’t reporting shoplifting to the police because nothing happens. They just hope their employees don’t get punched and the losses balance out.

And frankly, lately they haven’t. In another story that got national attention, Walgreen’s closed has 17 SF stores in the last five years due to shoplifting losses. This Chronicle story says theft in Walgreen’s SF stores is four times the national average.

So it isn’t just our imagination. Shoplifting is epidemic, to the point that national chains would rather close the store than try to stop it.

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I also think there’s another factor — video everywhere.

It is one thing to hear about brazen shoplifting. It is another to see that notorious video of the thief riding a bike into Walgreen’s, filling up a bag with cosmetics and rolling back out without a care in the world.

It is the definition of lawlessness. Granted, the guy was later arrested and charged, but that video was viewed over 6 million times on Twitter. Even the New York Times weighed in on “San Francisco’s Shoplifting Surge.”

Videos like that, and subsequent coverage, create a sense that the city is off the rails.

It’s like the constant cell phone footage of thieves breaking into cars, one after another. And the resident who was recently interviewed on TV news, who said he tried to stop the car thieves and they replied, “What are you going to do?”

And then, as I was putting this together, multiple media outlets — including Fox News — posted a video of the Monday’s smash and grab at Neiman Marcus on Union Square. In it a large group of thieves smash glass counters, grab expensive handbags and can be seen sprinting out the door with the loot. Again, that’s on Union Square.

Clue a shot of thousands of people throwing their hands in the air and shouting, “This city is. Out. Of. Control.”

So I think that is really where the divide is. On one hand we have a group, armed with stats and data, that wants to prove that things are not getting worse. They say this is about other factors: economic inequity, racial injustice and tech bros who complain about everything.

And there’s the other group — which I have one foot in — which says, you may have some numbers, but I want to tell you something.

This feels worse.

When, on Monday, a video surfaced of a burglar driving a car through the door of a small market to steal $20,000 worth of lottery scratchers, we could identify with the store owner, Elias Batshon.

“I don’t feel safe any more,” he said.

I get it. My wife insists on walking home by herself from appointments in the Financial District.

And yes. I worry about her.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Suggestions and compliments welcome. Criticism, not so much. Twitter: @cwnevius