It was over almost as soon as it began. A white sports car rolled up to an SUV parked beside Alamo Square on Aug. 21. A man broke the vehicle’s windows and snatched items from inside. As onlookers rushed to the scene, he fled in the getaway car, past a parked San Francisco police cruiser. Video of the blatant daylight crime quickly went viral and seemed to be yet more proof that car break-ins have become ubiquitous and perpetrators appear to face few consequences.
Scenes like this have plagued San Francisco and the wider Bay Area for years, from tourist-heavy Fisherman’s Wharf to the quiet residential lanes of West Portal.
Police statistics tracked by The Standard shows there were 1,500 thefts from vehicles in the city in the last 30 days. That’s slightly below the pace of 2017, when such crimes reached a peak, but the crime has become so common it’s been given its own street slang name in recent years: Bipping. And usage of the term has recently exploded in the lexicon of popular culture.
The crime is so associated with the city that San Francisco has earned the nickname Bip City. “Just another name for San Francisco,” reads the entry for bipping on the website Urban Dictionary. This summer, an single titled “Bip City” featuring rapper E-40 was released by a Bay Area trio.
“It’s become symbolic of the area and almost a point of pride,” said Sarah Daly, a criminologist who studies the links between culture and crime. Everyone in the Bay Area seemingly has had an experience with it, she said, either as a victim, witness or participant.
The city, meanwhile, has tried everything from offering $100,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest of bippers to repeated enforcement efforts solely targeting car break-in suspects. On Sept. 21, Supervisor Dean Preston plans to hold hearings on the topic.
Bipping describes the specific way some auto burglars operate. The term may have first surfaced to reference the use of porcelain pieces taken off spark plugs. When the shards are thrown at car windows, the glass shatters with little noise. Now, the more common tool is the resqme device, which was invented to save trapped drivers but has the same effect as spark plug pieces; it silently breaks car windows.
Young San Francisco rapper LaPrell Gilton, known as Lil Pete, said that bipping is something he has been aware of since he was 12 or 13.
“At first it was, like, we was using spark plugs,” Gilton told VladTV, a popular hip-hop channel on social media, about breaking the windows of expensive vehicles and rental cars with friends.
“The whole thing about bipping, it’s silent,” Gilton said.
The term has been in use for some years in the Bay Area, but it has become increasingly common in the past five or six years, law enforcement and locals say. The Oakland Police Department has used “bipping” since at least 2017, when a police report made brief mention of the term.
“The ‘Bipping Hammer’ is street slang for a small window breaker tool that is used to easily break the window of a vehicle in order to access the inside of the vehicle or escape to the outside with little force needed,” an Oakland police report from 2019 said.
People commonly use that kind of tool, continued the report, to break into cars because it is “easy to conceal, is discreet, quiet, near effortless, and does not leave any sort of fingerprints.”
The exact origin of the word is unclear. Some say it could reference the relatively silent sound of a window breaking after being hit by one of these tools. Others guess that it may have come from the sound a person makes when throwing a shadow-boxing punch.
A San Francisco Police Department spokesperson said the agency was aware of the term but does not know when it emerged or whether its increasing prevalence in songs and social media play a role in car break-ins. SFPD spokesperson Kathryn Winters noted that she was “not an anthropologist or a sociologist. Just an average cop.”
The word bipping has been part of local culture since before the pandemic. It first appears to have filtered up into common use from slang via low-budget rap videos featuring bipping as their central theme.
The music video for a song titled “Bip City,” released three years ago on YouTube, included Coit Tower as a backdrop with the performers bragging about the crime and how not to get caught.
“We can’t post how we score. Fuck a Snapchat. We keep that shit to us,” one MC rapped. “Tap that glass once and then finish—Bip City. I’m from Bip City.”
Bipping appears in multiple other songs, but the one perhaps most associated with the crime, which was released three years ago by local rapper Baby J, is both a how-to and a celebration of the crime. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The YouTube music video opens with the recording of a news anchor speaking about how widespread car break-ins have become. It eventually cuts to the actual act—and its rewards.
“You can tell a car rental just look at the tags,” says Baby J’s lyrics. “Stay calm and act casual, don’t move fast. …Quick, pull up on the plug.”
His follow-up, “Bippin Lessons 2,” released this year, is a combination of how-to and a newsy update on where and where not to bip. He warns people away from Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf because of increased police activity in those areas. But he notes that the crime is low risk if one is careful and, once again, lucrative.
“Make sure you have a mask on no matter the weather, because if you get caught on cameras, hotter than ever,” he wrote. “Don’t get caught because these days they use DNA. The field booming back again; it was just a drought.”
But not all songs about bipping glorify or instruct.
The single “Bip City,” by the group the Brodies and featuring E-40, makes light of the term by turning the verb into something beyond stealing from a car.
“SF thing with an Oakland swing,” the title track begins. “I’m on a mission, bipping with no witness.”
But the song isn’t actually about breaking into cars and stealing—in this case, “bipping” references taking someone’s girlfriend.
“Bipping is such a big thing in the Bay Area. It’s a negative thing—we were just like, ‘How do we flip it and make it positive?’” explained Sonny Burns, aka Sonny B, of the Brodies. “What if instead of bipping cars, we were bipping women?”
Burns heard the term used about four years ago when he was out with a woman from Oakland and her car was bipped. He says it seems to have become much more common since then.
The music group’s hope is that they can shape the word’s broader meaning before it truly becomes mainstream.
The Brodies’ lead singer, Adrian Marcel, said he thinks the term will become so common people might say things like, “My wife just bipped a piece of my sandwich,” or “The Warriors bipped that win.”
Still, every member of the group said they had been bipped and that it was a concern when they went to venues to perform.
Music is not the only place bipping is appearing.
Merchandise such as stickers, hats and shirts have taken the words Bip City beyond rap lyrics. A local entrepreneur, for instance, sells Bip City-emblazoned items through his Facebook page.
Cartoonists have begun using the term, too. A Ricky Rat Comix cartoon seen on a San Francisco street had a thought bubble that read, “Better hide your valuables cuz we’re in Bip City.”
And an Instagram account out of Oakland posts anti-bipping content, including stickers for cars warning away bippers. Unlike many handmade signs simply telling thieves cars are empty, these stickers say, “STOP. Nothing to steal. #Don’t bip me.”
While not everyone has heard of bipping yet—The Standard recently asked seven people in the South of Market neighborhood whether they were familiar with it, and only two were—it’s increasing usage could soon make it as common as other terms born of the criminal justice system like 187 (for murder) and Five-0 (for police).
Ana Ledeboer-Cid, 23, said she just moved to San Francisco from the East Coast and had never heard of the word. “Bipping sounds cute,” she said.
A woman who identified herself as Bossay Bandz, 45, of San Francisco, first heard the word three years ago in Antioch. “I had to ask what bipping meant,” she said of her first encounter with the word, adding that now she even knows what tools are used for bipping.
Mike Aranda, 42, who moved back to San Francisco recently after nine years in Los Angeles, said the term is not widely used in Southern California and that it was not used when he last lived in the Bay Area.
“To me, it’s like a pretty Bay Area-centric term,” Aranda said.
Randall Scott, the president of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, has faced more of the brunt of the crime than others since the neighborhood is an epicenter of car break-ins.
“It’s sad. There's no other way to describe it,” Scott said. Over the 12 months ending on Sept. 13, there have been 2,343 car break-in incidents reported in Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach. The past 12 months marked the highest number of break-ins in the area in the past five years.
Even the maker of the popular resqme, French-born Laurent Colasse, regrets its growth as a tool for bippers. On a recent trip to France, law enforcement told him people there are also using his tool to break into cars.
“I am not happy with what is happening when I hear stories like that because it's not the purpose,” Colasse said.
Longtime San Francisco police officer Steve Ford, who recently resigned as chief of the troubled Antioch Police Department, said he has never heard of the term bipping but understands why the term is popular in the Bay Area.
“You want to break into cars and get away with it, San Francisco is the spot,” Ford lamented. “I can see how the Bip City terminology can come about. It has become a cultural phenomenon.”
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org