DA Pitches Plan to Curb Auto Burglaries

By Bonnee Waldstein

Auto break-ins are among the increasing litany of quality of life woes in San Francisco, and the Glen Park neighborhood is no exception. From March 1st to 20th, there were six reported auto burglaries in the Glen Park area.

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On Monday, March 19, DA George Gascon led a forum for local neighborhood newspaper reporters. Among the newspapers represented were The Bay Area Reporter, The Sunset Beacon, The Western Edition, The Ingleside Light, and The Glen Park News. He and his Deputy DA, Frank Carrubba, detailed their plan to curb the auto break-in scourge.

The way it is now — every police station has an assigned neighborhood prosecutor; some cover more than one station.

Gascon is requesting temporary funding of one million dollars for a two- or three-year temporary project: a dedicated Crime Strategies Unit (CSU) for auto burglaries. It would be like the one that was successful in the spate of thefts by multiple criminals invading and overwhelming retail shops in the Union Square area. By prosecuting the “right” people, retail thefts dropped from three or four per day to zero.

Likewise, the CSU would lead to an increase in arrests. It would allow for hiring the necessary specialists, analysts, investigators and forensic accountants; and the greatly increased number of hours that would be needed. This time on the front end can save time in the court process, Gascon observed. It will also save thousands of residents from being victimized.

If approved, the efficacy of the project would be evaluated after each of the two or three years.

As a start, the DA has launched a digital tip line for victims of, and witnesses to, auto burglaries. The press release states that the tip line “will enable individuals to send evidence to the SFDA’s Crime Strategies Unit, which will be assessed and analyzed in order to identify and tie repeat offenders to multiple crimes.”

To access the digital tip line, go here.

Individuals may also call the auto burglary hotline at 415-553-7337.

According to the civil grand jury, criminal street gangs, working in teams to smash and grab within seconds, are behind 70 to 80 percent of all auto burglary incidents in San Francisco.

Apprehending perpetrators such as these one by one does little to solve the problem, as others who are connected are still out there committing these crimes.

A Crime Strategies Unit works to connect the dots among cases currently under review and other crimes that have similarities identified in pictures, video, suspect identifying information, suspect vehicle information, and more.

A CSU is embedded in every police district and, like the neighborhood prosecutor, may cover more than one. They meet with police officers and other stakeholders in the community and attend community meetings in order to gather information and understand the situation at ground level.

This concept is also effective in a number of serious crimes, such as human trafficking and gambling dens which breed violence.

The methodology of the CSU helps ensure that the perpetrators face the consequences for the impact they’ve had in San Francisco.

As an example, Gascon and Carrubba described how a Crime Strategies Unit is working in a retail environment in the Taraval Station. At a Walgreens, four defendants were arrested for two robberies. Ultimately there were six defendants over seven cities who were involved. Together they were responsible for 48 incidents.

Right now, auto burglaries are handled by an auto burglary unit that has one prosecutor who reviews and triages every case. They handle a high caseload of forty to fifty cases at a time. The arrest rate is only around 1.7 percent.

Vietnam Nguyen, a neighborhood prosecutor in the Park and Mission Stations, says that a Crime Strategies Unit builds on information to detect patterns across multiple cities and county boundaries.

The added complexity of linking types of crimes leads to more leverage in court and more convictions. Investigators use many methods to establish connections: cell phone analysis, video from the public, recognizing clothing in multiple incidents, such as caps, shoes and hoodies (even if the perpetrator can’t be identified). Thieves might use rental cars and switch to personal vehicles to evade law enforcement.

That is why it is so important to report every incident to the police. A look at the mapped incidents in Ingleside Station’s newsletter for January and February hints at underreporting of thefts from autos. That could translate to fewer resources deployed to Glen Park, regardless of whether there is a Crime Strategies Unit or not.

To file a non-emergency police report on crimes such as auto burglaries, go to the Ingleside Station at 1 Sergeant John V. Young Lane, or file a report online:
go here.

A second vital step for neighbors to do is to use surveillance cameras. For the reasons stated before, they are vital in gathering evidence and solving crimes. The City, County, and San Francisco Police Department are prohibited by ordinance from monitoring the public with cameras in real time without a request from a sergeant or higher-ranking officer.

In the Ingleside Station, a drive-by shooting was solved because of a surveillance camera. That crime was then connected to a conspiracy by a large group of offenders.

As part of its overall plan to combat auto burglaries, the DA’s office has republished a program in which residents can register their security devices. A map is made of all the registered devices, so that investigators will know just where to go to request video footage of a crime. “We know that a small percentage of individuals is responsible for the vast majority of auto burglaries in San Francisco,” says the DA.

The City works with defined Business Improvement Districts (fifteen, including Union Square, Mission Street, Castro and Noe Valley) to help merchants purchase or rent surveillance cameras for a monthly fee.

Any surveillance recordings in the City are strictly regulated as to storage of information. The City owns and keeps it for a specific time frame.

Video should be sent to the police and they can try to piece various bits of evidence together. Asked about using fake cameras to deter crime, DA Gascon said they are, of course, no use in solving crimes; furthermore, real cameras, with high quality and resolution, are very inexpensive now.

When asked about the negative feedback the CSU auto burglary proposal has gotten on several fronts (e.g., “This is the job you’re supposed to be doing anyway”), Assistant DA Carrubba said this was a misunderstanding. Gascon agreed and contends that people don’t understand how hard it is to undertake this kind of project. Under regular circumstances, he said, “An analyst can spend thousands of hours putting cases together, spending 60 hours on just one. That person still has a caseload of 15 others. Their work involves combing through information, screens, computers, etc., often sifting through unrelated data trying to make connections. The Crime Strategies Unit cannot be used with our traditional staffing model – no way.”

District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, appointed by Mayor Lee and up for election in June, and his opponent, Rafael Mandelman, apparently agree on their views of DA Gascon’s proposal.

Supervisor Sheehy responded in an email:

“I do not support DA Gascon’s Crime Strategies Unit for Auto Burglaries. Investigating crimes is the job of SFPD. Prosecuting crimes is the job of the District Attorney. We need more police officers for increased foot patrols, staffing specialized investigation units and to set up decoys. SFPD reported a 31% decrease in auto burglaries over this January and February, in part due to increased foot patrols enabled by increased Academy classes graduating. I continue to advocate, as I did last year, for additional police officers beyond the 1971 mandated in the mid 1990s.

“Per prosecution, I note that Wakeen Best, who broke into a car at a parking garage and tossed the Chihuahua inside off the roof, had 40+ arrests and convictions, but according to the Chronicle ‘hardly ever served more than a few weeks in jail.’ In fact, according to the Chronicle, ‘his most recent jail stint was for felony auto burglary that he committed there (at the same garage) in 2016. He served 64 days and got out Jan. 12, less than a month before the car break-in that resulted in the death of 4-year-old Dunky.’

“It seems to me that at least part of the problem is the failure to effectively prosecute. Let’s get that right before paying the DA to do SFPD’s job.”

Rafael Mandelman, had this to say, via email, on the DA’s plan:

“I commend DA Gascon for recognizing the gravity of the problem and attempting to address it. However, this is more properly a police function, and the DA’s request raises questions about lack of coordination and collaboration between the police department and the District Attorney, which is a problem for all San Franciscans.”

Where Does Glen Park Fit In?

Glen Park is status quo in terms of investigating break-ins and thefts from autos. The neighborhood is part of the current citywide effort. Resources are allocated according to the data reported to police.

On Friday, March 22, a particularly brazen and violent incident occurred on a busy street in the Glen Park village. The official police report is not yet online; however, a neighbor on Nextdoor posted the following report:

“Assault, smash & grab on Chenery / Diamond:
Police are on the corner of Chenery and Diamond right in front of the Hardware store. Apparently, a woman was walking by during a smash and grab, yelled at the man and was attacked. She was left bleeding on the street but luckily there were people around to help her. This is a busy pedestrian intersection during rush hour in broad daylight in a supposedly safe neighborhood. What the…??????”

Thus far there have been 67 replies to the post, many of which have trekked into highly political territory.

Ingleside Captain Jack Hart was asked for his views on auto burglaries in Glen Park. He responded in an email:

“As you can see from the current map, there have been a few reported in the neighborhood. Overall, the Ingleside District is down 40% in auto burglaries year-over-year. The concern is that the numbers are down because people aren’t filing online reports. Well, I have personally signed about 100 online reports and I can tell you–thankfully–people are filing online reports. The reason this is so important for us is that I personally analyze the data, as do our property liaison officers, investigators, and plainclothes officers, to identify trends and then get the cops out proactively during the dates and times criminals are likely to hit and hopefully prevent–or even better–catch them in the act. The Monterey Safeway is a great example of this. The upper parking lot was being hit repeatedly. I narrowed it down to between 7PM and 7:45PM, and our plainclothes cops set up surveillance and arrested 3 subjects from the Bayview breaking into a car at 7:40PM. So, we are out there! If, unfortunately, a car does get broken into, we desperately need that report submitted online or at the Station so that we can get our resources in the right spot.

“I was just having a late breakfast at Tyger’s. I watched a subject walking aimlessly from Chenery, to Diamond, to down the street by Canyon, back up Diamond and then on Chenery toward St. John’s. As he walked past the Dry Cleaners, he looked into every car window. I stood up, walked outside, and the subject doubled back, complained that I was staring at him, and then he ran and jumped on the 52 to go up the hill–the opposite direction he was just walking. Clearly, he was casing parked cars. If I wasn’t sitting there, his behavior would have almost gone unnoticed–no one else in the coffee shop saw what I was seeing–and professionals can be in and out of cars in a matter of seconds. So, the message is to keep aware of suspicious suspects, call 911 to report this behavior, always “park smart” by never leaving anything in your car, watching out for your neighbors, and always reporting to the police if/when a crime does occur.”

A follow-up question to Captain Hart about whether or not he supports the DA’s proposal has not yet been answered. Another follow up on this is pending.

Subscribe to the Ingleside Station Newsletter here.

Each issue has a page of Resource Information for the best way to report incidents and give feedback to the Ingleside Station.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently had a special report on the epidemic of car break-ins in the City. For detailed maps and statistics, go to: go here.

For the Chronicle’s more in-depth look at four of the City’s hot spots for car break-ins, go here.

For another local take on car break-ins, read the story in the Ingleside-Excelsior Light,  go here.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “DA Pitches Plan to Curb Auto Burglaries

  1. Billy

    What took so long for them to propose this?

  2. Pingback: GPA: ‘DA Pitches Plan to Curb Auto Burglaries’ | Sunnyside Neighborhood Association

  3. mwaldstein

    great reporting!

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