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2023 San Francisco crime trends: Car thefts up, car break-ins down

A police officer stands next to a motorcycle with flashing lights on a misty street at night.
Data from the San Francisco Police Department shows a slight uptick in violent crime, while most property crimes dropped in 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

San Francisco witnessed a number of high-profile crimes in 2023. Tech executive Bob Lee was stabbed to death Downtown. A YouTuber interviewed a delivery worker as his car got hijacked. Someone repeatedly bear-sprayed homeless people in the Marina District.

But for every incident that made headlines, hundreds more were quietly logged by the San Francisco Police Department.

To truly understand how crime changed in San Francisco in 2023, The Standard dove into the department’s incident data to analyze the trends. Because the year isn’t quite over, the analysis captured Jan. 1 through Dec. 15 of each year, unless otherwise specified, to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

The data revealed a slight uptick in violent crime—driven by a rise in robberies—while most property crimes dropped. Meanwhile, the city saw growing motor vehicle thefts, logging its sixth straight year with an increase.

Crime data only captures incidents that were reported to police, and many crimes never are. In 2022, just 42% of people who were victims of violent crimes called the police, according to the Department of Justice Criminal Victimization survey. However, law enforcement data still provides an important insight into trends in the city, as it has been consistently collected for decades.

Violent Crime Up, a Little

There were 53 homicides in San Francisco in 2023, as of Dec. 22, according to SFPD's count. That grim figure included the slaying of a beloved Richmond District shopkeeper, the stabbing of a young tech worker and the fatal shooting of a 25-year-old in the Lower Haight. That figure does not include a Nov. 12 homicide at Crissy Field, which occurred on federal property and is being investigated by other agencies.

Those numbers put the city roughly in line with its 2022 and 2021 homicide figures. The annual average number of homicides in San Francisco from 2013 to 2022 was 51, according to police data.

Overall, violent crime in San Francisco climbed slightly in 2023—about 3% according to the latest official SFPD totals, from October—driven by a roughly 15% bump in robberies.

A robbery is when someone takes something from a person by force or threat of violence.

In a joint statement with SFPD on this year’s crime totals, Mayor London Breed’s Office did not offer an explanation for the robbery increase but said that it was unacceptable.

Both robberies and aggravated assaults decreased significantly from 2019 to 2020. Both increased from 2021 to 2022, but in 2023, robberies continued increasing, while aggravated assaults decreased for the first time since the pandemic.

San Francisco has a low violent crime rate compared to some of California’s other major cities, ranking lower than Los Angeles, Fresno and Sacramento on a per capita basis. Oakland, which has the highest violent crime rate of the state’s eight largest cities, has well over double the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents as San Francisco.

San Francisco’s violent crime rate has dropped significantly since the 1990s. In 1992, the city had nearly triple the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents as in 2022.

Car Thefts Driving Uphill

San Francisco continued to earn its reputation as a place to beware of where you leave your car in 2023. Motor vehicle thefts in the city continued climbing in 2023, reaching 818 incidents per 100,000 residents. That's a 64% increase over the 2018 rate of 498 incidents per 100,000 residents.

In total, San Francisco police recorded 7,135 vehicle thefts between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15, 2023.

Motor vehicle theft—taking the vehicle itself, not just snatching a purse out of the back seat—is worse in San Francisco than most of the other major cities in California. Statewide data, which lags behind a year, shows that in 2022, only Oakland had more vehicle thefts per resident than San Francisco among the eight largest Golden State cities.

Addressing motor vehicle thefts is a top priority for the San Francisco Police Department, the Mayor’s Office said in its statement.

SFPD is expanding its efforts to recover stolen vehicles and arrest perpetrators by using automated license plate readers, leveraging data to identify and target serial offenders, and collaborating with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to find missing vehicles, the statement said. The police plan to install 400 automated license plate readers in early 2024.

“People whose cars are stolen should not suffer twice,” Supervisor Joel Engardio said about the rise in vehicle thefts. He celebrated the mayor’s decision earlier this year to waive parking tickets that accrue on stolen cars, after reports that many residents ended up getting their vehicles back only to face steep fees. Engardio believes the city should take a step further and agree to waive tow and impound fees on stolen cars.

“Individuals and small businesses should not have to pay to get their stolen car back from the impound lot after a police held the car during their investigation,” Engardio said.

Car Break-Ins, Other Property Crimes Drop

Outside of vehicle theft, other major property crimes declined in San Francisco in 2023.

Theft from vehicles—which includes snatching a purse but not driving away with the car—decreased 12% in 2023 compared with 2022. 

That brought the total number of incidents logged by SFPD through Dec. 15, 2023, to about 20,450. That’s an average of nearly 59 car break-ins every day in San Francisco. In 2019, police recorded over 25,900 thefts from vehicles in the city during that same time period.

Larceny theft—the unlawful taking of property from another person—is by far the most common crime committed and includes theft from vehicles. Larcenies declined dramatically as the city locked down during the pandemic in 2020, then steadily increased for the two years that followed, though they did not return to pre-pandemic totals. That upward trend broke in 2023, however, as larcenies dropped 10% citywide year over year.

The Mayor’s Office credited SFPD’s increased focus on these types of petty thefts for the decline.

In August, SFPD began patrolling vehicle break-in hot spots, including near the Palace of Fine Arts and on Alamo Square, which may have served as a deterrent. The department also introduced bait cars to catch criminals and has been targeting the fencers who buy stolen goods from the bippers.

Meanwhile, police officers have been staking out retailers weekly in so-called blitz operations to nab shoplifters, and they have upped their presence at holiday shopping destinations.

During the pandemic, vandalism and burglary rates climbed, with burglaries reaching their six-year peak in 2020 and vandalism hitting its peak in 2021. The rates for both crimes have receded since 2021, and this year, both had rates similar to their 2018 figures.

Statewide data shows that San Francisco has a high overall property crime rate compared with other major cities. Only Oakland had more property crimes per 100,000 residents in 2022 than San Francisco among the eight largest cities in the state, the data shows.

Taking the long view, crime in San Francisco has fallen tremendously since the 1990s, as is the case in cities across the U.S. The city’s 2022 property crime rate was 34% lower than its peak in 1992. Why exactly crime fell so much nationwide is not an easy question to answer, with leading theories ranging from the reduced presence of lead in the water to population shifts, mass incarceration and the decline of crack cocaine.

Drug Enforcement on the Rise

In 2023, San Francisco had its worst fatal drug overdose year on record, with fentanyl factoring into the vast majority of those deaths. The mayor has turned to law enforcement to address the problem.

“Our goal is to dismantle the illegal marketplace for drugs in the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods that have had such a devastating impact on these communities,” her office said. To do that, SFPD has been focusing more resources on arresting drug dealers and seizing fentanyl.

That increasing enforcement is clear in SFPD’s data, which shows that the number of incidents police logged of people possessing, selling or transporting drugs in the city more than doubled between 2021 and 2023.

San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Legal & Policy Associate Zac Dillon said this stepped-up enforcement has been the wrong approach to the public health crisis.

“Law enforcement, which includes prosecutors, have responded by using regressive tactics from the failed and racist War on Drugs, which have again failed, as we are seeing record overdose deaths amid the recent crackdown,” Dillon said. “Criminalizing the drug supply does nothing to abate the demand.”

He said the city should focus more resources on drug treatment, housing, education and employment.

“We’re also offering services to people who are using drugs,” the Mayor’s Office said. “However, when people are causing a danger to themselves or others and breaking the law, we are making arrests.”

In September, The Standard reported that out of 476 people arrested in a police crackdown on public drug use, two entered treatment.

Noah Baustin can be reached at nbaustin@sfstandard.com