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Politics & Policy

Crime is falling in San Francisco. Try telling that to voters

A police officer observing a person near a lit-up building at night, with a patrol car nearby.
As crime rates fall, questions remain about whether frustrated voters will perceive the difference. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

One of the most consequential forces driving San Francisco’s political future—crime rates in the city—has been trending downward this year.

Robbery reports are at a six-year low, according to an analysis by The Standard of San Francisco Police Department data. After peaking in 2021, burglaries have fallen. Also down are crimes like motor vehicle theft and larceny, a category that includes car break-ins.

Even as crime rates fall, questions remain about whether voters—who are largely unhappy with the state of the city and frustrated with City Hall—will perceive the difference and reward sitting politicians for it. 

The development could change the dynamics of the mayoral race this November as public safety dominates the election conversation and candidates embrace tough positions on crime. Improving crime rates could complicate the narrative that some moderate candidates have relied on in their campaigns, political observers say. 

“London Breed will certainly try to get credit for things turning around,” progressive consultant Daniel Anderson said. “I think the trick is, can you get the narrative changed fast enough in the minds of voters? The thing is, it is such a departure from what she has been saying for the last couple of years.”

The data appears to reflect what other U.S. cities are experiencing as the pandemic has subsided.

The Standard’s analysis includes a comparison of three-and-a-half-month intervals over the last six years—and offers insight into how the city is doing in its first 100 days of 2024, roughly four years since Covid pushed crime onto the center stage of San Francisco’s political debate.

The most recent crime figures pulled from SFPD show robberies down from a high of 856 in the first 100 days of 2020 to 627 in the same period this year. Burglaries, which were at a peak of 2,384 in the first 100 days of 2021, have dropped to 1,408 in the same period this year. Larceny reports have dropped from the same period in 2018 at 11,812 to 6,118.

The data is, of course, imperfect: It only represents reported incidents to police, so it may not capture the full picture of crime in the city. And the citywide data doesn’t measure changes on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, where some crimes may have increased in certain areas while decreasing in others.

Furthermore, the numbers don’t offer insight into activities in San Francisco that can play into people’s perceptions of public safety. University of San Francisco criminologist Kimberly Richman said people often associate high crime with boarded-up shops and homeless encampments.

“In general, people are normally primed to think that there is more crime than there is,” said Richman.

Some crime categories have also stubbornly plateaued, like assaults and homicides, though the latter numbers are still low when compared with those of other cities across the country.

Fears around crime in San Francisco came to a head during the recall of progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in 2022 when moderate opponents cast the city’s top cop as soft on crime. 

Facing pressure on the issue, Mayor London Breed has seemingly embraced tougher tactics on crime. Beginning in 2021, when she declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin, Breed championed two March ballot measures that tightened rules around drug use for recipients of cash assistance and handed more powers to police. 

A woman in a blue jacket speaks into a microphone with blurred figures and vehicles in the background.
Mayor London Breed “understands that many San Franciscans still don’t feel safe,” according to a campaign spokesperson. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Over the past month, Breed has proudly advertised the recent crime statistics—likely as a way to show her strategies on the issue are working.

It’s not clear whether voters will give the mayor credit for falling crime rates, however. Recent polling shows voters pessimistic about the state of the city and displeased with Breed’s performance.

“I see crime on another level,” said San Francisco resident Margaret McNulty as she stood on the steps of City Hall on Monday. “There’s a lot of shattered glass and graffiti. I think people are getting really frustrated. In terms of how I will vote, I haven’t seen any action plans. I want a fresh face.”

Chris Callaway, who owns a dispensary on Van Ness Avenue, said he feels the city is making strides in both reducing store break-ins and controlling the spread of encampments. 

He hasn’t made any decisions about who he will vote for yet—but said crime and the city’s ability to get empty storefronts filled will certainly be part of his decision-making.

“I will be taking a good look at the new candidates,” Callaway said. 

A spokesperson for Breed’s campaign said she “understands that many San Franciscans still don’t feel safe” and that she promises to have a fully staffed police force to keep pushing crime down if elected to a second term. “Her number one goal is for San Franciscans in every neighborhood to feel safe.”

A busy city street with pedestrians and a police officer in the foreground.
Pedestrians walk down Powell Street near Union Square in downtown San Francisco on Monday. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Todd David, the political director for the moderate-aligned advocacy organization Abundant SF, said the crime data benefits Breed and hurts her rivals Daniel Lurie and Mark Farrell, both of whom entered the race with public safety as a top priority. 

Farrell has gone the farthest between the two, calling for armed National Guard in the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods to combat the city’s drug trade.

“Their whole argument for running is that London Breed is not doing a good job,” said David about Lurie and Farrell. “It doesn’t pass the smell test. When it seemed like things were bad, it was the mayor’s fault. Isn’t she responsible for both the good and the bad?”

In a statement, Farrell called Breed’s efforts “too little too late” and criticized her track record on police staffing. 

“I will be a mayor who will challenge and upend the status quo at every level of government because voters are fed up and don’t trust that Mayor Breed can get the job done,” he stated. 

Nonprofit leader Lurie said he welcomes any good news “because our city needs it.”

He added, “While I hope these gains are not temporary, we have a long way to go as San Francisco continues to experience some of the highest rates of property crime in California.”

How the crime figures impact Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who entered the race this month in an attempt to capture the city’s leftward-leaning voters, will hinge on just how much other topics like housing affordability take up oxygen, Anderson said.

“The less the race is about crime panic, I think that helps a progressive,” he said.

Longtime political consultant Jim Ross said Peskin could use the trends to his advantage.

“You have these conflicting messages coming from this moderate group of candidates in San Francisco,” Ross said. “I think it gives him a great opportunity.”

But Abundant SF’s David isn’t convinced Peskin can shift the narrative for his own political survival, considering the importance that public safety carries with the city’s Asian American voting bloc, who are vital to winning the mayoral race. Peskin has promised to bring back police foot patrols and increase community ambassadors.

“Aaron Peskin believes his path is through the Chinese community,” David said. “To do that, he’s going to have to talk about public safety all the time.”

In a statement, Peskin said that “overall crime statistics don’t tell the full story of our neighborhoods.”

He added, “What we have seen from this administration and its allies is an effort to make people feel afraid for their own political gain. Public safety is a progressive value, and it’s time to be smart on crime.”

Jonah Owen Lamb contributed to this story.