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Politics & Policy

San Francisco’s car break-in epidemic gets a hearing

passenger side car window shattered
A car with a shattered window following a break-in is seen at Express Service Auto Glass in San Francisco on March 1, 2023. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

In all of the ongoing debate over crime in San Francisco, the one offense that may have vexed everyday people the most is “bipping.” That’s slang for breaking into a car and looting it of any valuables—which, if the car owner is lucky, they might see again being resold on a street corner. 

Supervisor Dean Preston—whose own neighborhood recently suffered daytime break-ins that were captured on video—is calling for a hearing on the city’s bipping epidemic, which he says has become a “regular topic of conversation” between his office, constituents and police. 

Preston, whose district includes several hot spots for car break-ins in neighborhoods such as Alamo Square and Japantown, wants the Mayor’s Office, San Francisco Police Department, the Municipal Transportation Agency and a slew of city departments to explain to the Board of Supervisors what’s being done about the problem. Preston's office expects the hearing to take place at the board's Government Audit and Oversight Committee.

“Despite many announcements, the city has made no noticeable progress in addressing this persistent issue,” says Preston in a press release. “It’s time to let the public know what’s been working and what hasn’t, and what can be done collaboratively to finally reduce car break-ins. 

“Meanwhile, residents continue to deal with broken car windows, stolen possessions, and shattered glass on streets and sidewalks, while visitors are left with trauma, financial loss, and less-than-ideal memories of their visits,” the release added.

Preston is the most visible opponent of enforcement-based public safety policies on the Board of Supervisors. He deplored the recent aggressive breakup of the Dolores Park Hill Bomb, an unsanctioned skateboarding event that some say was getting further out of hand every year. 

Because of his opposition to increased police funding, he’s also been the sole vote against approving the city budget for the past two years. He’s expected to do so again when the budget comes up for its first vote before the board.

Auto break-ins have grown so common in the city that, for some car drivers, shattered windows are just a fact of life. A car window repair shop The Standard spoke to in March said they got 25 calls a day for repairs. Even reporters have had their vehicles broken into, providing regular feed fodder for TV crews and social media. 

Based on past police data, July marks the beginning of a high season for car break-ins, with tourists a frequent target. Year to date, 10,478 car break-ins have been reported, according to police data.

"We understand that perpetrators are organized and often come from
outside the city to prey on the residents and the many visitors to our city," said police spokesperson Robert Rueca in an email. "We are working to identify these networks of criminals and we're making arrests."

Over the extended July Fourth holiday, a particularly brazen bipping spree that took place in Alamo Square was caught on video by passersby and ruined a trip to the city for two visiting families. (Preston himself lives near Alamo Square.) 

To combat car break-ins, in addition to the usual law enforcement route, the city has launched preventative initiatives like “Park Smart,” which encourages visitors not to leave valuables in cars in several languages. It has also offered rewards of up to $100,000 for information that helps quash organized bipping gangs. 

Preston wants a status report on how the programs are doing, and to look at other possible solutions—that, presumably, may not involve the police.

“I do not accept that this is a problem we can’t solve. We just need to work together on more effective strategies,” Preston says. “That starts with being honest and transparent about the nature of the problem.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include new information about which Board of Supervisors committee will likely hold the hearing about car break-ins and a comment from the police department.