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Politics & Policy

Bob Lee killing: A tipping point in a city fed up with crime?

San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins (center) addresses the media alongside Chief of Police Bill Scott (left) and Mayor London Breed on Oct. 5, 2022. | Don Feria for The Standard

The fatal stabbing of Cash App creator Bob Lee early Tuesday has reignited a public safety debate that dominated San Francisco elections last year.

While details of the killing aren’t yet known, members of the city’s politically engaged tech community—as well as City Hall officials—are acknowledging that the high-profile death could become an inflection point that influences how business decisions are made and campaign dollars are directed.

Lee, a former Google engineer and chief technology officer for Square, was visiting San Francisco on a business trip after recently moving to Miami, according to his friends and colleagues. Police said that officers found him suffering from stab wounds at 2:35 a.m. Tuesday near the corner of Main and Harrison streets, and Lee would later die after being rushed to the hospital.

READ MORE: Video Appears To Show Mortally Wounded Cash App Creator Bob Lee Looking for Help in Downtown San Francisco After Stabbing

A Twitter image shows Bob Lee, the former chief technology officer of Square, who was stabbed to death on the 400 block of Main Street in Downtown San Francisco on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

No arrest has been made in the killing. But since word of Lee’s death became public, tech leaders across the Bay Area—from Twitter’s Elon Musk to Lee’s former colleagues—have slammed San Francisco’s approach to public safety in social media posts and interviews. Although killings in San Francisco are relatively rare, polling shows San Franciscans are increasingly frustrated over public safety in the city and many people believe city leaders allow crime to go unchecked.

“It’s infuriating,” said Zach Coelius, managing partner at venture capital firm Coelius Capital, in an interview Wednesday morning. “A lot of us have been shouting and screaming that the city’s refusal to do its job and enforce laws is going to lead to really dire consequences. And now it’s hitting home in a really horrible and painful way.”

READ MORE: Bob Lee’s Downtown SF Killing Sparks Rage

That sentiment was echoed by other tech and business leaders who took to social media linking Lee’s death to decisions at City Hall. Musk, who owns San Francisco-based Twitter and has more than 133 million followers on the app, tagged District Attorney Brooke Jenkins in a tweet asserting that “even if attackers are caught, they are often released immediately.”  

Mayor London Breed, who recently pushed to expand police overtime due to a shortage of officers, called the killing of Lee a “horrible tragedy” and noted that the incident is being actively investigated. 

“I’m confident that when the police make an arrest in cases like this, our district attorney will do what’s necessary to hold any individuals accountable for their actions,” Breed said. 

READ MORE: What Is MobileCoin, the Company Where Slain Tech Exec Bob Lee Worked?

Jenkins took office last summer after voters ousted her predecessor and former boss, Chesa Boudin. Many voters, including people within San Francisco’s influential tech and business communities, felt Boudin was too lenient on criminal offenders. Jenkins has vowed to crack down on drug dealers and violent crime in the city, touting statistics showing she is charging crimes at a higher rate than Boudin.

Both Jenkins and Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who represents the Rincon Hill neighborhood where Lee was killed, asked anyone with information on the death to contact police, and the city’s top prosecutor noted that “holding violent/repeat offenders accountable is a top priority for my administration.”

At a City Hall meeting Wednesday evening, Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto expressed frustration with the deluge of comments on social media and in the press, saying many people were “exploiting this horrific incident for political gain.” He encouraged people to read eulogies about the victim—not Musk’s tweets.

“So much of the coverage in this short amount of time has been a significant amount of misrepresenting facts, of fear-mongering and of trying to exploit this tragedy,” Benedicto said. “We don’t know all the facts. … I find it premature and distasteful to try to fit this horrifying act of violence into a preconceived narrative and use it to advance a political agenda.”

San Francisco Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto addresses the Police Commission on April 5, 2023.

A Call To Action?

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who is considering a challenge to Mayor Breed in next year’s election, said it’s too early to know what exactly led to Lee’s death, but the fallout of the killing could have broader implications for residents and businesses.

“Obviously, it certainly plays into this narrative and the fears that we’ve been hearing for the last few years—that San Francisco is not safe,” Safaí said. “People could absolutely have second thoughts about San Francisco.”

Maggie Muir, a political consultant for Jenkins and Breed, dismissed the criticism from Musk and suggested he was trying to capitalize on a tragedy. 

“Elon doesn’t let facts get in the way of pushing his own agenda by speculating on a situation I imagine he has no knowledge of, just like Trump creating a storyline for papers based on nothing,” Muir said.

READ MORE: Former Square CTO Bob Lee Stabbed to Death in Downtown San Francisco

Joel Engardio, a newly elected supervisor for the Sunset, noted in a statement Wednesday that violent crime is far lower today than it was decades ago. But he added that such statistics do little to reassure residents.

“It’s no consolation to say we had three times as many murders in the 1970s. What matters is how people feel today, and they don’t feel safe,” Engardio said. 

San Francsicso Police Department officers observe a protest against “killer robots,” which stems from a policy regarding SFPD and military equipment, at San Francisco City Hall at 1 Dr Carlton B Goodlett Pl. on Monday, December 5, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco police officers watch a protest against “killer robots” at City Hall on Dec. 5, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard 

Steven Buss, the founder of GrowSF, a political group that supported the recall of Boudin, told The Standard that Lee’s killing could become a flashpoint in ongoing debates over public safety in San Francisco. But the reaction may depend on what details emerge in the coming days, he said. 

“I do think this murder will cause a general shift towards supporting greater investment in public safety,” Buss said. “Tech isn’t a monolith, and people all over the city will react strongly to a high-profile murder in what many people think [is] a safe part of town, regardless of whatever their job is.” 

GrowSF, one of multiple emerging political groups raising money from the tech community, is raising funds, in part, to back candidates who embrace what they view as “commonsense” policies on public safety and other issues. 

Coelius, who said he has no intention of leaving San Francisco, speculated that Lee’s death could spur more people to get involved.

“This is one more step in the process of a lot of people becoming politically engaged because we have to, not because we want to,” he said. “A lot of us now are very active in the community, not just in supervisors’ races but up and down the ballot and trying to rethink how the city is run.”

Staff writer Michael Barba contributed to this report.

Mike Ege and Annie Gaus contributed additional reporting for this story.
Josh Koehn can be reached at