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Dial-a-sting: For stores plagued with shoplifting, undercover cops just an email away

Two police officers, in uniform with vests, stand outside a Sephora store; one officer looks ahead, while the other looks upward. The store entrance is open.
Thanks to a state grant to combat retail theft, San Francisco police say they’ll set up undercover stings at any stores with space to hide a cop in. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

In recent years, San Francisco’s reputation has been tarnished by viral videos of “takeover-style” retail thefts, in which a mob of masked thieves rushes a Walgreens, Safeway, or CVS store, making off with whatever they can carry to sell in illegal street markets.

But as the cops crack down on organized shoplifting crackdown with what they’ve been calling “blitz operations,” the San Francisco Police Department will now set up stings at any business with the space to hide a cop in. All the owners have to do is send an email to

The operations began in the fall and were immediately hailed as successful, racking up around 200 arrests by the end of 2023. Last week, Chief Bill Scott said the department had arrested “well over 400 people this year alone.” Police were asked for firm data on the number of arrests and a breakdown of operations by store size but did not respond by publication time.

The department funds the operations through a $15.3 million state grant, which aims to target organized retail crime. 

“The retail theft grant that the city received last year is being put to good use, and a lot of those blitz operations are funded by that grant,” Scott said at the city’s most recent Police Commission hearing.

A chief of police wearing a navy uniform with a gold star badge is speaking, with a colorful background featuring text and patterns behind him.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott says the department has arrested “well over 400 people this year alone” through the "blitz operations." | Source: Philip Pachecho for The Standard

SFPD’s state-funded response to retail theft comes as the department’s response times have grown markedly slower—even though police are fielding far fewer calls. 

San Francisco police’s prioritization of enforcement at stores that request it also reflects the department’s years-long shift away from self-initiated calls—when police spot a crime and call it in. According to SFPD, the department’s self-initiated calls dropped by 56% from 2019 to 2022. 

Not all of SFPD’s state-funded blitz operations involve undercover officers. Some are carried out with uniformed staff, said police communications director Evan Sernoffsky. Operations are done multiple times a week, at a mix of small, medium and large stores.

Sernoffsky said San Francisco Centre and Stonestown mall have proved to be ideal locations for the sting operations. But a smaller boutique store, for example, would be less ideal for stings due to the logistics around size and space.

‘Begging for beat cops’

For proprietors of some of those smaller boutique stores, it can be hard not to feel overlooked. 

Carole Yenne, head of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, applauded the neighborhood’s police captain for stings at the Castro and Jersey streets Walgreens, a shoplifting hotspot where she says a guard quit after being pepper-sprayed by thieves. But a number of smaller member businesses in her association can’t always rely on police response, she said. 

“We have probably experienced the same issues as other business neighborhoods,” Yenne said. “The police are called and sometimes they make it in three minutes, sometimes they take much longer, hours, even overnight.”

A Walgreens pharmacy with colorful murals on the walls is shown. A police officer is walking by, and a young woman is nearby eating snacks. The entrance has a boarded section.
A security guard walks in front of Walgreens on Mission Street. The stores have become shoplifting hotspots in San Francisco. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Gallery of Jewels at 24th and Castro streets was broken into twice in the last few years, Yenne said. The third time, thieves used a truck to ram into the building, causing enough structural damage for the jeweler to close for good after decades in business. 

“The building owner was without a tenant for months while they fixed the building,” Yenne added, “and the business owner quit after a lifetime of being a small business owner.”

Just last week, another small business in Noe Valley was hit twice by three older teenagers in a “rush grab” shoplifting spree.

“The cost to the business was thousands of dollars,” Yenne said. “But in this climate of insurance issues, it is hard to make claims for reimbursement to insurance without the fear of hugely rising premiums.”

While the state anti-retail-theft grant seems to be effective for larger stores and malls, Yenne said smaller businesses are better served by more visible police presence.

“We have been begging for beat cops like we had 10 or so years ago,” she said. “We went from two to one to none.”

Candace Combs, president of the Mission Creek Business Association and owner of In-Symmetry Spa, echoed the sentiment. If larger stores can get on-demand police response by sending an email, that’s great, she said—if only their mom-and-pop counterparts could get someone to pick up the phone. 

“I’ve called and called and called 9-1-1 and they sent me to 3-1-1,” she said. “And by the way, no one answers 3-1-1, so you just start all over again.”

Robert Emmons, a board member of Haight-Ashbury Merchants Association, said most of the neighborhood’s member businesses are too small to experience shoplifting issues that might merit the kind of undercover operations police offer big retailers. 

“As for response time when we do need the police, it varies,” he said. “There are times when we are able to get an officer onsite quickly, but there have also been times when we don’t get a response at all.”

‘No easy answer’

In the absence of prompt police response, Castro Merchants Association President Terry Asten Bennett said most stores have taken it upon themselves to prevent theft in the first place. 

“We do our best to safely recover the merchandise,” Bennett told The Standard. “The threshold for anything to count criminally is so high it isn’t worth anybody’s time to report $5 and $10 items. But the reality is I have to sell an additional $500 to $1,000 to cover the loss of a $5 or $10 item.”

Gwen Kaplan, owner of Ace Mailing on 16th Street and one of 13 members of the SFPD Small Business Advisory Forum, said it’s not just big retailers that benefit from the state-grant-funded retail-theft crackdown. 

“I know that in malls, for example, there are a lot of small businesses,” she said. “It’s not just big stores in there.”

But she understands why small business owners might feel overlooked and said that’s something SFPD is trying to address with more outreach.

“I can tell you that the police department does try really hard to get out in the community and walk the beats and give all kinds of advice to retail merchants,” she said. “There’s no easy answer.”

Joe Burn can be reached at
Jennifer Wadsworth can be reached at