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City leaders to lock down Union Square ahead of holiday shopping season

Mayor London Breed (far right) speaks with Hospitality Ambassadors Monroe Quarles (far left), CeRena McKnight (center left) and Raven Anderson (center right) at a press event with public safety leaders, local businesses and the Union Square Alliance ahead of the 2022 holiday season in Union Square on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Flanked by police officers and an array of community ambassadors, and in the shadow of a towering Union Square Christmas Tree, Mayor London Breed and business leaders unveiled a new safety plan meant to prevent the viral retail thefts that ravaged the central shopping district one year ago. 

Dubbed the Safe Shopper initiative, the program harkens back to the law enforcement that flooded the area last year after dozens of people broke into Louis Vuitton and other luxury retailers, stealing thousands in merchandise in an incident that spread widely online. 

“There are a number of videos that continue to go viral that try to paint a really harsh picture of our city,” said Mayor London Breed. “But I'm here to tell you that things have changed, things are looking up, and I am optimistic and excited about the future.”

The plan calls for boosting the number of uniformed officers posted in the shopping district, in addition to limiting points of entry and closing certain streets to cars. The city also plans to increase patrols in Union Square parking garages by police officers, park rangers and other security personnel.

The initiative also dovetails with a recent push to add another 150 unarmed community ambassadors and retired police officers and expand their footprint around the city. Additional ambassadors will be posted in and around Union Square, particularly on Market Street between Fourth and Fifth Street. 

Welcome Ambassadors 2
Brian DeBellevue is one of several dozen Welcome Ambassadors who have been hired to greet and assist visitors to San Francisco. | Photo by Mike Kuba

Breed went on to tout the return of shoppers to Union Square and guests to local hotels, describing enhanced powerwashing to keep streets and sidewalks clean and an offer of one hour of free parking in the Union Square garage.

Breed’s cheerleading kicks off a holiday shopping season that is symbolic of a return to normalcy after two years of the pandemic—and a spate of looting last year that embarrassed the city on a national stage. 

Police Chief Bill Scott highlighted the viral thefts as a turning point that tarnished the city’s reputation. As part of the Safe Shopper plan, the police department is quadrupling the four to six uniformed and plainclothes officers assigned to Union Square and surrounding streets. They are using overtime pay approved as part of the city’s budget to do so. 

“I could quote statistics all day long, but if you don't come here and feel safe, none of that matters.” Scott said.

Scott laid out some of the department’s progress in combating retail theft, including doubling the number of officers in the organization’s retail crime unit from four to eight and more than 80 retail theft cases where charges are pending or filed. The mobile command center that stood in Union Square last year as a clear sign of the increased law enforcement presence will also remain. 

As for how long this heightened security will remain? Scott said that he hopes it’s a permanent fixture.  

“The reality is that we have to balance this with what’s happening elsewhere in the city, but we are trying to structure ourselves in a way that this does not go away,” Scott said in an interview.

Mirroring the tough-on-crime language that helped her win election to a full term, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said that “restoring accountability” for misbehavior is one her main priorities. 

“I think for the first time in a long time, we've realized the connection between law enforcement and the District Attorney's Office and our San Francisco economy,” Jenkins said. “We can't allow our businesses to be ravaged and rampant theft to go on and expect them to stay.”

Mousa Mihter, who works as a security guard in Union Square, voiced support for city leaders’ tough talk on accountability. While working in the neighborhood during last year’s holiday season, he said there was a feeling of unease among employees particularly after the thefts. 

“During the pandemic, we did not feel safe; everyone was covering their face, and we never knew what people were going to do,” Mihter said. 

This year, he said, things are shaping up much better with no problems he’s seen in the lead-up to this holiday shopping season.