The Bay Area Crime Wave
Reflections on the recent burglaries, what types of crime capture our attention and how to actually prevent crime versus creating more crime.
The Bay Area is embroiled over these rash of burglaries where a mob of people come into department stores and steal things. It started with Louis Vuitton in San Francisco, then Nordstrom in Walnut Creek, California. Repeat incidents have happened mostly at suburban shopping centers around the Bay Area such as San Jose and Hayward. News media coverage has been pretty breathless, with even objective reporters breaking character to show some revulsion at what these people are doing.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed decided to staff downtown’s public square with police officers and offer free parking for suburban shoppers. Of course no thief or thieves is dumb enough to hit the same spot twice so it’s just theater policing. San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin announced felony charges for the suspects rather forcefully on Twitter, as did all the Bay Area’s DAs, which we’ll discuss later.
Almost all of the perpetrators in these videos are Black, skewing mostly young but several arrested were in their 20s and early 30s. The only exceptions were the Lululemon hit in San Jose for which there isn’t any footage and an Oakland pharmacy hit which appears to have been done by white kids. I presume those white kids use drugs or are selling them but I don’t know.
Burglaries are bad. They’re crimes. Twitter of course is full of “in defense of looting” and “corporate abuse is worse” and a bunch of notions that people shouldn’t pay this much mind compared to corporate crimes. I worked in retail and while wage theft sucks, so does being pepper sprayed and assaulted while on the clock from a mob, as what allegedly happened to workers in Walnut Creek. Nobody in retail wants to deal with that nonsense, even while they’re arguing with their boss about whether their overtime was paid or not. Retail employees are indeed distressed during these attacks and it’s out of touch to be dismissive about people being the victim of crimes. But these are mainly Twitter exclusives.
Offline, these attacks along with a general sense of a crime wave is stirring up public opinion in favor of hiring more police officers. I also see some indicators that slightly more people are arming themselves. Even at the height of the Black Lives Matter uprising last year, only a handful of cities in the Bay Area committed to just not filling police vacancies. With public opinion growing about crime, those handful of cities are already reversing with little progressive push back so far. Progressive candidate for Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao is pushing for more police academies after opposing them last year; a decision that seems aimed at generating support from older voters of color in communities suffering from violence.
People have been talking to me about this crime uptick they’re seeing in various communities around the Bay Area. Polling in Oakland suggests that most people want more police patrols, yet less police spending, and polling in Berkeley suggests that while residents want to de-police traffic enforcement, as I’ve been advocating for, they still want police to deal with property crimes.
I don’t think this is simply the byproduct of media hysteria but I also don’t think polling suggests the Bay Area is in the midst of a tremendous, awesome crime wave. The general sense I get is people see an uptick in crime, perhaps more severe in some areas than others, that’s clearly been a byproduct of the economic hardship since COVID-19’s outbreak. There’s also been opportunistic crime capitalizing off the holiday season.
My motivation has always been about advancing public safety with evidence-based policy. My friends and allies first did it with safety on BART, we did it with traffic enforcement, and I’ll do it here too. While research finds that police do deter crimes when they’re visible, they are expensive solutions for municipal budgets and it is fiscally irresponsible to throw a salary and a pension on every other corner if there are systemic solutions to crime. There are instances, particularly violent ones, where a police officer makes sense, but we as a hyper individualist society with a rapidly deteriorating sense of community have a tendency to rush to the police to solve every single problem, irrespective of an officer’s training.
I caution the Bay Area that we must remember history. If Bay Area cities rush to sloppily hire a bunch of officers to combat the crime increase and do nothing else, like jurisdictions did during the Recession in 2008, we may end up with poorly trained rookies who kill someone like they did Oscar Grant. So before the Bay Area starts mass hiring police and erects a new generation of neighborhood crime watch signs, lets try to think about what makes a criminal and how to prevent them.
There’s been a lot of frustration that police officers won’t stop these mobs as they’re burglarizing stores, but there’s no way police officers are going to, en-masse, arrest a bunch of people like that. Law enforcement’s current strategy is just arresting the slowest burglars and using detectives to find the rest. Which is what they’re supposed to do. Why waste cops’ time having them play Mall Cop to stop a mob of a people when you can just get them later? Why threaten lives by making cops go into giant brawls like something out of the Dark Knight Rises for some handbags that can be recovered?
Drawing cops away from their beats to guard malls is also a great way to expose the rest of the city to crime—which is exactly what occurred on the night of the Rittenhouse verdict in Oakland. OPD spent their time downtown monitoring uneventful protests, and the rest of the city erupted into chaos with sideshows, dispensary shootouts and 2 people killed. Maybe the sideshow in the West Portal neighborhood of San Francisco could’ve been stopped if the police officers were no longer performing their theater roles sitting around at Union Square.
So what are these flash burglaries? An innovative new criminal scheme? No, flash mob burglaries are just dumb shit kids do to get their favorite clothes or re-sell things for money. It’s been happening since forever; go open up Newspapers dot com archives and find endless stories of young people gangs looting stores en-masse throughout the 20th century. It wasn’t too long ago that some teenagers flash robbed BART passengers at Coliseum station and people got all hysterical too. I’m certain the incident traumatized people and it’s absolutely inexcusable, but it wasn’t some sinister scheme cooked up by highly organized crime rings. No, it was just some kids from Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods trying to steal phones.
These mob burglaries aren’t very smart either. I’m certain the organizers of these loosely held together mobs explain in their group chats that strength in numbers decreases their likelihood of arrest. Which of course is bullshit. Any good thief will tell you that having more than like three or four people who aren’t very close friends doing a burglary is a terrible idea. Let alone 80 people. Not only were there certainly numerous snitches in the group chat, but even if miraculously there weren’t any, the ones that got caught will snitch others out. And despite deleting your group DMs and text messages they can and will be recovered by law enforcement.
So they’re going to get caught; the whole hysteria about out of control, punishment free burglaries is reactionary. Many of those kids who participated are probably suffering from anxiety right now, knowing any day the police will show up to their door and arrest them, let alone the aggressive media coverage they’re getting. For many of those youths, that terrible anxiety or a simple arrest is enough to never do it again. Yet the Bay Area’s DAs are all announcing felony charges for those involved.
Life as a Felon
One of the people caught in San Francisco was a mid-20s guy who the police alleged was in possession of a gun (be extremely wary of police reports). Three people were arrested in Contra Costa County so far, one a 19 year old and two 30-somethings. If you are actually interested in stopping crimes like these rather than just responding to them, your goal is to prevent kids like that 19 year old from becoming like his older accomplices. The adults can be helped, but these young people are at a critical life junction that will determine their future. Tread cautiously.
If we give these people, espesially the youths, felony convictions, one of two things will happen: the first is that the ones with the mental fortitude to endure will correct themselves. But in those cases, felonies were not necessary; an arrest or being caught would’ve scared them out of re-offending. All the felony will do in this case is add years of unnecessary hardship, harm their earnings and ability to retain housing. The second scenario here is that they’ll become re-offenders.
In California, felonies stay on your record for seven years, which is actually quite lenient compared to other states but it’s nearly 3/4ths of a decade. I know people in Alameda County who got felonies for theft despite having zero or little criminal records. They are mostly young people between 18 and 25 who were in a financial crisis, and were often misled by an older peer or partner into committing theft.
You basically don’t have a life once you get a felony, which makes escaping criminality much harder. The difficulty of getting a job with a felony conviction is insanely high. Despite “ban the box” standards, once a job is offered, the employer can run a background check and oftentimes that offer will be rescinded. It’ll be even worse in this job market where, contrary to austerity propaganda, a lot of people aren’t hiring even for low barrier to entry jobs like service and retail. Of course the longer it takes to get a decent job, the bigger the gap is on your resume and depending on your race and background—a resume gap suggests criminality to employers.
It’s way harder to find housing with a felony conviction. Landlords can do background checks on prospective tenants despite their ability to pay and will certainly bar felons. For most of my friends that meant sleeping in their cars or living with generous family members, though part of the reason they offended to begin with is because they didn’t have many family members helping them. Some ran out of options and became homeless.
The mental stress of being homeless bares down tremendously because you’re at your lowest point. Severe stress comes from a 24/7 need to survive; a place to live which often means a car if you’re lucky; a place to stay safe; what to do if your few possessions get stolen; how to react when you’re living in your car and it gets towed; what happens when your bank account is empty; the insomnia after your last family member or friend cuts you off; the depression from having the umpteenth landlord and employer reject you. The inability to get a bath, to sleep warm, to get cell service. You will go insane.
You’ll start stealing pain killers just to stay focused enough to steal food. Then you become another face on the streets shooting themselves up with a needle. That’s if you’re lucky and not bleeding out from a wound below 880 or suffocating to death from overdose across the street from Twitter’s HQ.
This is not a hypothetical. It’s happening now, and it starts with an unnecessary felony conviction from a poor decision, which initiated a chain reaction that ultimately destroyed people rather than helped them. Ask yourself: do you want to help these people so you’ll never need the police to deal with them again? Or do you want to spend more money throwing their lives away, just feel good that those lawless, wild kids running out of Nordstrom got hurt?
Here’s what I bet as the arrests come out: not one of those perpetrators has a good paying job; not of those perpetrators went to a university; not one of the juveniles has plans to go to college; not one of the youths graduated high school with a GPA higher than 2.9 and not one lives in an area with a poverty level is less than 20%.
I look at communities like Detroit and I understand why the youth there resort to crime, but what the hell is the matter with the Bay Area? Arguably the wealthiest metropolitan area in the United States. A place with too many jobs and not enough people to fill them. What social responsibility has the Bay Area’s business leaders taken in solving the gross, abhorrent income inequality on the streets of San Francisco?
Silicon Valley is full of isolated people whose peers consist of socioeconomic clones and think their success was the product of strictly their own merit. Many unironically think that a kid who grows up in Cupertino will have the same life chances as a kid who grows up in Bayview-Hunters Point. So now we see a large portion of the tech class who, for all their bombast about innovation and disruption, can only think up recalling the current DA because he won’t prosecute every single low level offense. Not only would it not make San Francisco safer, as evidenced by the tough on crime DAs in the East Bay, but it’s the most unoriginal idea that every single suburbanite has about crime.
You’re a venture capitalist or a chief executive officer and you want to see fewer burglaries, auto thefts and flash mobs? Instead of making a charity payment to some poverty nonprofit, take your money and go to Castlemont High School, Richmond High School, Antioch High School, Thurgood Marshall High School and give those teenagers a job. Any job, it could be pushing papers but give them something to take pride in. Look at the history of industry towns and understand that when you give a community universal stake in your industry through employment, people will protect it. Give those poor people some stake in the tech industry, and they’ll care about the industry. Right now we have a large lower class in the Bay Area who are not apart of this economic boom.
These young people try to make money in dignified ways but people hate on it no matter what they do. During the BART crime issue years back, people kept complaining about these Black kids dancing in the trains for money. I asked them back, “Would you prefer that they rob the train instead?” White and Asian kids playing violin for money, that’s all cool and talented, but some Black kids are passionate about hip hop and dancing and suddenly it’s a problem.
Some of these kids from the hood are very entrepreneurial. They’re selling weed, they’re making videos, they’re braiding hair, they’re dancing for money. That’s how they express their entrepreneurial spirit in their dis-invested communities; they can’t get internships at Apple or Goldman Sachs like the white kids. They want to start their own companies, their own clothes line and footwear, their own salons, record labels, cannabis dispensaries, daycares, the works. A lot of these young Black folks are innovators and business people at heart, yet they don’t get an ounce of attention from the technology Capitalists in San Francisco.
It costs the taxpayers and business leaders much more money to fund the police to babysit the city’s social ills and fund arguably the largest public housing program in California, the state penitentiary system, than it is to just give these young people and these thieves jobs.
Death in the Avenues
I don’t really know if there’s a crime wave regardless of the perception that there is one. I don’t trust police statistics besides homicide, home invasion and auto burglaries. I don’t know many people who would make a police report about assault or theft. I worked at a Walgreens with an extensive theft problem and know first hand only extreme cases were reported to the police. In San Francisco, there’s seven fewer homicides, two hundred more burglaries and fifty more motor thefts than last year. Is that a crime wave? I suppose. The entire country has seen increased crime since the pandemic. The only thing that sticks out about San Francisco is the appalling high drug overdoses last year in which no other Bay Area county came close.
Couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of mob burglaries happened outside of San Francisco, though. I notice that only crimes in San Francisco require public responses from district attorney Chesa Boudin. Alameda County district attorney Nancy O’Malley is never made to answer for the very clear crime wave in Oakland right now. O’Malley virtually never appears in any publication about the endless homicides, the endless dispensary attacks, or even the freeway shootings that have killed two in the last couple months including a mother and a baby, on top of 80 freeway shootings last year in Alameda County. Nothing about district attorney Diana Becton who bears apparently no responsibility for the numerous homicides in Pittsburg and Antioch, or the burglaries in Walnut Creek. Jeff Rosen, Santa Clara County DA, home of the Lululemon and this recent shoe store mob burglary? Never heard of him.
It’s only Boudin, apparently, who’s expected to give public comment to media about crime. Why? It’s not as if he runs SFPD. He doesn’t make staffing decisions, he doesn’t decide who gets arrested and where beat patrols go. He’s a prosecutor. Because he pointed out that punitive behavior isn’t always warranted in every situation, now he’s become target #1 for all social ills in San Francisco with a recall initiative, despite no real evidence that he’s more lenient on prosecutions than his Bay Area counterparts, or that the crime wave is unique to San Francisco.
What really gets to me though is that there is a clear crime wave happening. Oakland’s at its 127th homicide as of typing this. When I started this substack 2 days ago it was at its 126th. Where’s the faces of the victims? Where’s the twitter videos? Who even are these homicide victims? With exception to the murdered KRON guard Kevin Nishita or baby Jasper Wu, we hardly even know them.
Prior to the pandemic, homicides in Oakland were at all time lows, but now the homicide levels for a second year in a row is reaching 1990s levels of death. But since these are mainly confined to East Oakland and West Oakland, and the victims are mostly Black and Brown, nobody really cares. After all, it’s where murder is expected to happen and to the people it's expected to happen to. When crime happens where it’s not supposed to happen like in suburban Walnut Creek or downtown San Francisco, suddenly it gets hyper media focus.
Louis Vuitton and Nordstrom have become incessantly repeated names as if they’re people, not 15 year old Shamara Young, 34 year old Danny McNary Jr, 41 year old Kanawa Long, 22 year old Devani Aleman Sanchez, 24 year old Suiti Mesui, 33 year old Lindsey Logue, 52 year old Dirk Tillotson, 30 year old Willie Lennon III and the list goes on. What about the numerous unidentified people who were gunned down and had their lives taken from them? The media doesn’t care because they died in the zipcodes where society has deemed it acceptable and not news worthy.
There were three instances of shootings in Oakland the weekend of the Louis Vuitton burglary. Two people—two human beings—died. Shot to death by a gun, bled out on the street with their minds in panic. One a 17 year old boy who spent over 6,000 days being born, raised, having life struggles and successes, having family, going to school — all erased in just a few seconds. No follow up stories by newspapers, no check-ins on the family from journalists. No social media outrage. Nothing.
Just another sex and age description in the homicide weekly wrap up. Public dollars goes not to the therapy for the families who lost their relatives or have been terrorized by crackling bullets, not just in Oakland or Antioch but in Bayview-Hunter’s Point or the troubled areas in downtown San Francisco, but instead to free parking and street closures for suburban Black Friday shoppers.
One hundred and twenty seven people have been killed in Oakland and forty five in San Francisco this year alone. Scroll back up to the top, look at the header image and just stare at that picture for a minute. That’s a picture of roughly one hundred and seventy human beings. Then imagine someone pulling out a gun and shooting all those people.
The only thing more sad than thinking about the hundreds of families who suffer in grief alone tonight, are the relatives of the murdered who will pick up a gun and attempt revenge. And at this key moment, when a community is needed to help those people, our people, and when the powers of politicians and media could showcase these victims of mindless violence; when the region’s economic powerhouses could offer the widowed, the brother-less, the parent-less a job, everyone instead wants cops to babysit big department stores. Then the vicious cycle starts all over again.
Here’s a map of homicides in the Bay Area.
Post has been edited to change robberies and robbers to burglaries and burglars in reference to the mob thefts of department stores. Burglary is the correct criminal offense description in the absence of threatened violence.
Excellent column- count me as a new subscriber, and we're really in need of this sanity. But if I may, I'd like to dissect this and perhaps add some not always agreeable insight, based on my own experience as someone that has ties and history to all sides of this equation. I have the Silicon Valley career and a police record after having grown up in working class East Bay to prove it.
Tech is very much taking recruitment from underprivileged seriously. Damn near every company is not only taking serious effort by not only recruiting, but staffing DEI personnel at very high levels of the executive tree. This has kicked into a much higher gear over the past 2-3 years, and it absolutely not a flash in the pan. Personally, there are very few things as satisfying as bringing on young people from Oakland, Concord, Antioch, or Vallejo. If Pittsburg High is on your resume, you go to the very top of the pile, full stop. And we make sure that they get the extra attention to succeed. I was one of these youths once, and I probably went nearly 15 years without seeing someone from my background in tech. This situation has improved dramatically.
Burglaries and property theft are not merely a case of LV being robbed. They're a symptom of a larger deterioration in the social contract. It's extremely frightening when it happens to your or others around you. And people stopped reporting these crimes in SF and Oakland years ago, because there's just no point; what will it accomplish except for you spending more of your time dealing with something you want to forget about in the first place.
These also have been affecting lower income areas disproportionally for the past several years, with zero response by city authorities, throughout SF and the East Bay. They've been dealing with egregious stuff happening next to their family homes for years. And if perpetrators are indeed caught and even convicted, they damn near never get charged with anything remotely resembling a felony. People want action. They want to feel safe, and are tired of being told that the homeless junkies that are literally lighting their hillsides on fire in between robbing their homes in Pittsburg have more rights and recourse than the homeowners do. Which I'm hearing happen over and over again.
The last real crime wave of the 90s was much uglier than people seem to remember. Gangs, nasty drugs, and guns were far more prolific than they are now. And the reaction was incredibly heavy-handed. Felonies were given out like candy by judges who were almost gleeful to be doing so, and the socioeconomic disparity was beyond appalling. Time and time again, the poor were put away for many years, while the mainly white but certainly rich got off with slaps on the wrists. Side note: when talking about the East Bay, there's a very high percentage of poor whites that are cutoff from privilege as well. Current discussions of equity are sometimes very vocal in deliberately not including them in the conversation, and that's flat-out cruel, not to mention short sighted.
But the harsh reactions had a deterrent effect. Those people that went away? They knew exactly what they were doing, and what a penalty would look like. Eventually, everyone got the picture. It simply was not worth doing, however bad your current situation was. Today, the young people that are now committing these property crimes are doing so under the impression that the penalty is *worth* the action. No one around them is being penalized with real time, they don't see repercussions, and they payoff can be quick and easy.
Frank Somerville, a Bay Area journalism legend and all around lovely human being, will likely never be on local network broadcast TV again because he dared to speak out on one of society's grossest and flagrant examples of institutionalized racism that exists today. And this man is speaking from the perspective of a father realizing that if affected, one of his daughters will be memorialized while the other will be ignored.
As a white father with an insanely mixed race large family, contemplating this makes me feel like I'm being stabbed. Society will judge my darker skinned family members differently from the rest because of its sick bigotry. And what sticks out to me is just how little we've actually come in addressing this; in 2002, Oakland saw 113 murders, 98% POC. None were noted by name. No compassion whatsoever. And yet Laci Peterson was, *is still*, obsessed over by national media. And I gotta stop right there. I just lost my train of thought because contemplating this is beyond what I'm able to articulate after letting my head go there. I need to go for a walk.
To the degree there is a crime wave, I think focusing on the kind of crime poor folks commit again is missing the plot. Corporate crime soared to levels in the last 5 years beyond anything I've ever seen. And I worked for Arthur Andersen in 2002 (for readers under 30, look up "Enron Scandal")
Crypto? A Bernie Madoff style pyramid scheme happening in plain view. South Dakota is openly running an operation for hiding money that has made the Cayman Islands look like a lemonade stand. Rules in general have, for most of white america, become optional - something you do out of civic duty, but are only enforced if you make someone powerful mad enough at you.
Of course, you see this in more everyday matters. I live near a fairly busy intersection in SF, where drivers have basically started running the red whenever they like, as they've realized there is zero risk of being ticketed for traffic violations. You see it with people grabbing handicapped parking spaces without a permit whenever the hell they feel like it.
This goes pre-pandemic, but I wonder if people being isolated and behind screens more and more is making them see the rest of humanity as less human, because the root of all of this - wanton selfishness, seems to be the real trend that is happening.
In a sense, it is what happens when Anomie settles into the body politic. People just seem to be out of fucks to give, especially in CA, where "Got mine, fuck you" is the state slogan.