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Data offer clues on San Francisco’s crime paradox: Police chief and academics have some ideas too

Broken car window | Photo by Camille Cohen

There is plenty of evidence that many San Francisco residents believe the city has grown less safe in recent years, and especially during the pandemic.

Eight out of ten San Franciscans believe crime has worsened in recent years, according to one poll released by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce this summer. Viral videos of shoplifters and other crime stories have spread fast on social media, feeding perceptions of a city out of control. Recently, one Marina neighborhood went so far as to hire private security to patrol its streets. 

District Attorney Chesa Boudin is now facing a likely recall election, at least in part because of growing worries about crime.

Boudin and other public officials, including Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott, have all acknowledged that many residents feel less safe.

But they have pushed back on the idea that the city is experiencing an unprecedented crime wave. City data shows reported crime was down about 20% during 2020, though this year’s numbers show a mixed picture. In San Francisco, as in much of the country, overall crime rates remain well below their 1990s levels.

We asked Maxim Massenkoff, an economist at the Naval Postgraduate School, to look at the data for clues to the contradiction. His findings suggest at least part of the answer to the crime paradox: because so many fewer people were out and about during the pandemic, the chances of being a victim of a crime increased even as the overall crime rate decreased. 

Massenkoff used anonymized GPS cell phone data from Safegraph to measure foot traffic in each of San Francisco’s roughly 600 census blocks. The data showed that the number of violent crimes rose from 0.9 per 10,000 people to 1.2 per 10,000 people—a jump of 34%. On Muni, where the number of boardings and the number of crime incidents are both reported, violent crimes per rider nearly tripled.

And when it comes to car crime, parking meter data makes it possible to see that on fully metered streets, the chances of having your car stolen rose 26% in 2020 and 52% so far in 2021 from 2019 levels.

Read Massenkoff’s column here.

Mikaela Rabinowitz, director of data, research and analytics at the District Attorney’s office, said the research was flawed. In particular, she objected to the use of relative rate increases instead of absolute numerical increases. “For example, in looking at crime on Muni, the report notes that violent crime increased from .9 incidents per 10,000 people to 1.2 incidents per 10,000 people; but instead of accurately describing that as an absolute rate increase of .3, the report describes the rate at which the rate increased, which was 30%,” she said in a statement to Here/Say.

She also objected to what she said were inaccurate assumptions and small sample sizes, noting that the discussion of car crime was based on “a sample of 1% of motor vehicle thefts across 10% of city streets, a statistically invalid sample from which to infer citywide trends.”

SFPD Chief Bill Scott acknowledges that the police department has a duty to address the public’s fears of crime, “regardless of what the statistics say.

The fear of crime is a real thing that we have to deal with,” he told us during a ridealong interview on National Night Out. I don’t care how those statistics slice up because if people fear that crime is happening, it’s a real problem.”

Scott believes that viral videos are a major contributor to the perception that San Francisco is dangerous, but he also notes that the underreporting of crimes could account for crime statistics not matching up with citizens’ lived reality. 

See our interview with Chief Scott below.

Video by Jesse Rogala

Academic experts point to some other factors that could contribute to fear of crime. Deserted streets and empty trains and buses can make crime more noticeable, for one. Now we’ve got two people on the street. One of them is stealing handbags. It becomes very obvious,” says sociologist Sarah Lageson, an associate professor at Rutgers University Newark School of Criminal Justice who studies law, privacy, technology and surveillance.

Social media apps including Nextdoor and Citizen amplify skewed perceptions of crime with constant notifications about incidents, as do viral videos of shoplifting and other crimes, Lageson and others say. The generalized anxiety created by the pandemic is also a factor.

There are plenty of questions about the city’s underlying data too. Supervisor Catherine Stefani, a former prosecutor, believes that the way that crime data is analyzed by city departments and communicated to the public needs to change. For instance, she believes a per capita crime rate based on the number of people in the city (rather than the resident population) would more accurately capture the city’s crime rate by accounting for the decline in tourists and commuters during the pandemic. 

She also observes that “a lot of what people perceive as crime isn’t captured in the crime rate.Drug overdoses, for example, aren’t included in the aggregate crime rate, yet those deaths are likely linked to the criminal activity of drug dealers and illicit drug sales. Additionally, crimes like the spate of violent attacks against elderly Asian Americans that horrified San Franciscans and caught national attention earlier this year, might be lumped in with assaults rather than documented as hate crimes. 

In addition to more nuanced data crunching, Stefani believes that city leaders shouldn’t be afraid to have real talk with citizens about crime. “When you tell people in San Francisco, ‘crime is down,’ you completely insult what they’re experiencing,” she says. “There is a lot more we should be doing.”