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‘Worse than it’s ever been’: Crime rising in San Francisco’s sleepy Sunset District

A sidewalk in a business corridor along Iriving Street is busy with people in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. | Amy Osborne for The Standard

It started with a bang on Feb. 9, in an Outer Sunset explosion that killed a woman and flattened a home. The incident rattled the neighborhood, known for its single-family homes, robust Asian communities and suburban vibe. 

But the explosion wasn’t the first incident to rock the Sunset in recent months: residents and business owners say the sprawling western region has been quietly struggling with increasing crime for years.

Recent incidents confirmed by San Francisco police include a mail carrier robbed at gunpoint by a woman on La Playa between Irving and Judah streets on the afternoon of Feb. 17. Officers say the next day, a bustling holiday-weekend Saturday, gunshots rang out in the late morning near the busy Chain of Lakes entrance to Golden Gate Park at Lincoln Way and 41st Avenue—damaging a car that was passing by.

Over the last years, several Asian elders have been killed in separate hit-and-run incidents on busy Sunset roads. A nail salon owner on Noriega Street increased security efforts after a string of car robberies, and a liquor store in the Inner Sunset was broken into twice in February, apparently after decades without incident. A robbery hit a pharmacy just blocks away, the suspects stealing highly sought-after weight loss drugs.

“I think [people] take advantage of this community, because most of the people here are running businesses; a lot of people are going to work, rushing around,” said Adan Peralta, a security guard at Bank of America on 21st Avenue and Irving Street. “People get attacked on their walks, people are breaking into residences and there’s a lot of older people here.” 

SF Police Department crime data shows homes and businesses in the Taraval Police District—which covers from Golden Gate Park’s southern edge to the San Mateo County’s border—are increasingly being targeted for property crimes. It’s not just this past year, either; these western regions recorded a 47% increase in motor vehicle theft in 2020 and a 30% uptick in burglary for 2021. Now, larceny theft is spiking in western neighborhoods, rising 28% in 2022.  

Residents, store owners and community leaders worry the sleepy neighborhood’s quieter, residence-heavy reputation has proved attractive for visiting criminals.

Outside Reliable Rexall Sunset Pharmacy on Ninth Avenue and Irving Street. | Amy Osborne for The Standard

Crime Increasing in Western SF

The Sunset is served by the Taraval Police District, which covers over 130,000 city residents, according to newly elected Supervisor Joel Engardio. Crime data from the police district—which includes Supervisor Districts 4 and parts of 7 and 11—shows property crimes edging upward. 

From the start of the year to Feb. 19, robberies increased nearly 36% compared to the same time the previous year. Larceny theft shot up by 28% between 2021 and 2022, and robbery, assault and motor vehicle theft all edged upwards by roughly 5%. 

But numbers don’t tell the whole story, and anecdotally, residents and store owners say they have never seen Sunset crime as bad as in recent years. 

“It’s been going on even a little bit before Covid, really,” said Frank McGinn, who owns the Amazing Fantasy comic book store on Irving Street. “Crime in San Francisco, it’s worse than it’s ever been. We’ve been broken into twice in the last two years, and we had no break-ins for the 20 years prior.” 

McGinn and many other business owners who spoke to The Standard say that the break-ins happen the same way nearly every time: Burglars break glass windows, take as much money and goods as possible and flee. Just down the street from McGinn’s shop, the pharmacy on Ninth Avenue was burgled on Thursday morning, and McGinn says he’s heard from neighboring businesses that have been hit recently, too.

READ MORE: San Francisco Liquor Store Burgled Twice After Decades Without Incident

The Standard visited over a dozen Sunset businesses, and most owners and workers reported experiencing a break-in or robbery within the last two years. Every single one said they also knew of a nearby business that had been targeted since the pandemic started.

The proliferation of these petty crimes and property incidents means that many merchants are starting to take matters into their own hands, sometimes even deciding against reporting incidents to the police. Instead, many have taken to installing cameras, putting up metal barriers and signposting about their alarm systems.

Two women stop to look at the scene of a house explosion in the Outer Sunset. | Amy Osborne for The Standard

Some merchants say bolstering their security efforts publicly is working. Others say a disproportionate burden is being placed on small business owners to fund and supply their own protection. 

“There’s nothing that I can really do, because [break-ins] happen in the middle of the night,” McGinn said. “Unless I get a metal gate, which some stores have, but that’s really expensive today. Until the city hires more police and has more police out looking at stuff—I know it’s not popular, but people need to go to jail.”

Policing the Sunset

Merchants say they don’t always report crimes and are forced to install more security measures because of the police department’s ongoing staffing problems.

Many Sunset business owners told The Standard they want increased police foot patrols in merchant corridors and tougher policing throughout the city. But community leaders warn that those solutions are not only politically controversial, but also potentially impossible to implement without more officers. 

“It’s important for residents and business owners to understand just how short staffed our police department is that serves the Sunset,” said Supervisor Joel Engardio, who represents the district. “The staffing crisis is citywide, but it’s especially dire in the Sunset because [Taraval Station] serves 130,000 residents and is huge… But they’ve lost half of their force.”

“On any given night, there might be only three or four officers to serve 130,000 people in the widest geographic area of the city,” Engardio said.  

Business owner Tina Nguyen shows where she recently installed a video camera to protect her business on Noriega Street on Feb. 23. | Amy Osborne for The Standard

Engardio says his office is working to encourage more people to apply to become police officers in the city. 

“We conflate the horrible things that happen in policing in other parts of the country with San Francisco,” Engardio said. “I don’t think that’s fair. To be clear, our police department is not immune to the bad things that have happened, and their history is not pure. But we have to put it in context of what they are doing today.” 

READ MORE: Teen Says SF Cop Used Drugs, Had Sex With Her. He Got a $240K Salary Anyway

Just a short time into his first term, Engardio says one of his first efforts to combat property crime in his district is to implement a community watch program composed of retired, unarmed police officers—effectively a patrol system of beat cops on the streets.  

Taraval Police Station Capt. Robert Yick was contacted for comment.

District 7 supervisor Myrna Melgar was contacted for comment.

Adan Victor Bernardino Peralta, a security guard, stands watch outside of a bank on a busy sidewalk along Iriving Street on Feb. 23. | Amy Osborne for The Standard

Previous programs to help victims of crime in the area were introduced by former District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar.

Mar says his office offered relief grant programs for small businesses that were vandalized or burgled, and implemented a community ambassador program for the first time in the Sunset. However, many speculate that because these programs fell short, voters ultimately chose moderate candidate Engardio at the last election, in a rare ousting of an incumbent.

Ultimately, Sunset residents see the spate of crimes happening in their region as part of a broader city problem that is not unique to them and has hit neighboring areas just as hard. Merchants are simply fed up, concerned that the city isn’t doing enough and that the problem is simply too complex to solve. 

“It upsets me, because when I see [crime] in the news, it’s usually small businesses,” said Progress Hardware worker Eric Raisor. “You see small business owners cleaning graffiti off the front, and they have to show up early that day before they open their store. […] It’s frustrating. I’ve been here for 10 years, and I love the city. I just hate to see small businesses struggling.”