CRIME WATCH | CHRIS BARNETT
Lt. Ed Del Carlo, all 6 feet 6 inches of him, rises out of his chair in a gritty windowless office inside the fortress-like Northern Station on Fillmore Street and extends a welcoming hand the size of a catcher’s mitt. In his other hand are 32 police reports from the day before. The 25-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department doesn’t try to whitewash the situation: Crime is mushrooming citywide — and it’s worse in the Fillmore.
“The big growth trend is property crime. But no longer is it only drug dealing addicts who break into cars to steal a laptop, a smart phone, an iPad or any electronic device they can fence within minutes at 7th and Market,” he says. “We’re seeing more sophisticated, more violent criminals who’re coming in from the East Bay, Sacramento, the Central Valley and the Peninsula because they know if they get arrested, chances are they won’t do any jail or prison time.”
The neighborhood crime surge is affecting both residents and retailers, and criminals are more brazen. This year, thieves drove a stolen car through the front glass door of the Marc Jacobs fashion boutique at Fillmore and Sacramento around 4 a.m., looted its merchandise and were gone in an estimated five minutes. And twice this year, the glass door of the MAC makeup shop on Fillmore near Pine was shattered in the early morning hours and the shelves were cleaned of expensive skin creams. In the summer, thieves smashed the glass front door of Dino and Santino’s restaurant at Fillmore and California and carted off the cash register.
“Organized retail theft is the new term for shoplifting,” says Del Carlo. “It’s not just one person slyly slipping a single item into a pocket or a purse. In this crime spike, we’re seeing younger, tougher gang members and copycats wearing backpacks entering a store, grabbing whatever they can and running.”
Street criminals no longer just have a specialty — robbing a home when the occupants are gone, or cracking a car window with a spark plug and scooping up anything left in plain sight. “If guys who are on their way to commit auto burglaries see an opportunity to rob someone, they’ll rob them,” says Del Carlo, who heads a special investigations team of six sergeants. “Auto burglars traditionally were unarmed, but in the last few years, more are carrying weapons.”
He emphasizes that most thieves aren’t novices. “They can get into apartment garages and into storage facilities and take bicycles and anything of value that can be resold,” he says. “There is a lot of new construction in San Francisco, and construction sites have spaces set aside for bicycles. Thieves break in.”
Crooks are aware that residents may be more cautious about leaving valuables visible in cars, but tourists, particularly foreigners and out of towners, are easier prey. The Palace of Fine Arts is a hotbed of auto burglaries, Del Carlo says. Visitors park, take photos, then come back to their rental cars and find the trunk has been popped and their luggage stolen. His message: Do not keep anything valuable in a car in any neighborhood in San Francisco.
Some crime reports involve unimaginable loss. Del Carlo says a businessman-tourist from Vietnam recently reported that his $35,000 Vertu smartphone was stolen from the backseat of his rental car; the phone was sitting in plain sight. A Union Street resident packed his car with two $3,000 bicycles and $1,200 in electronic gear on a Friday night before a getaway weekend in Lake Tahoe; he was cleaned out sometime during the night.
But a growing number of crimes these days are not planned to snag upscale goods. Del Carlo says police are finding “more and more severely mentally ill people roaming our streets — not just on Market Street — who are responsible for some of the unprovoked attacks.”
Local police personnel are hard-pressed to meet the increasing challenges. For starters, Northern Station now has more territory to protect, Del Carlo points out; the station’s western boundary was recently expanded from Steiner to Divisadero Street. Overall, SFPD’s sworn officers total 2,178 citywide today, compared with 1,940 officers in 2008, but a spokesperson says the department is still understaffed due to attrition. During this year and next, five police academy classes should put 300 more cops on the streets. Until then, Northern, like other stations citywide, is short officers.
But Del Carlo isn’t making excuses, explaining that much depends on the circumstances. “Generally, the way it works is a first-time auto burglar gets three years of probation. That means we can search the person, his vehicle or his home without a search warrant for a period of three years,” he says. “But there are no absolutes. A first offender’s probation can be extended or he could be arraigned and go to jail.”
Typically, though, Del Carlo says property crime offenders need multiple arrests — four or five — before they go to jail.
He echoes what other cops have complained about: that the passage of Proposition 47 last November has handicapped their crime fighting. The proposition downgraded numerous property crimes and drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors. Del Carlo maintains the act has backfired on the city and its residents. Before, if the value of a stolen item was $400 or more, the burglary was treated as a felony. After Prop 47 passed, the value of the stolen goods or the drugs has to be at least $950 for a felony arrest. The auto burglar arrested with someone else’s iPad, laptop or smart phone in hand will be charged with a misdemeanor and isn’t likely to see the inside of a cell.
For all the furor over Prop 47, the local jail population so far has remained about the same. According to the Sheriff’s Department, which runs the three county jails — two on Bryant Street and one in San Bruno — the inmate count on September 25 was 1,235. A year earlier, it was 1,273. A year before that, in 2013, it was 1,288.
Still, time in local jails doesn’t come easily. “If we catch someone committing a home burglary and there is good evidence — like a clear video or some other corroborating evidence — the D.A. may file on them, and they may do six months or get time served,” says Del Carlo. “Juries in San Francisco send a very small margin of offenders to state prison. Yet if the same violent crime was committed in Daly City or in San Mateo County, the guy would go to state prison.”
His advice: San Franciscans have to get involved in their own protection by paying attention, being alert and calling the SFPD when something looks suspicious. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” he says. “But I believe people want to help us, particularly if they have been a victim or know someone who has had a horrific loss.”
Lt. Ed Del Carlo was transferred last month from Northern Station to Taraval Station, where he continues to head a special investigations team. Lt. Jenn Jackson, who headed patrol at Northern Station, has replaced him.