Screenshot from a viral video of a Walgreens shoplifting heist in San Francisco

San Francisco’s Shoplifting Saga

By Joel P. Engardio

The latest list of Walgreens closures in San Francisco includes the infamous location at 300 Gough Street. That’s where an especially brazen heist was caught on video that went viral — a man filled a garbage bag full of loot and rode down the aisle on a bicycle and out the door.

San Francisco’s shoplifting woes have become national news and Supervisor Ahsha Safai told the New York Times that City Hall “needs to act with a sense of urgency to reduce and deter the number of incidents of commercial retail theft.”

Prosecution rates for shoplifting fell from 70 to 44 percent between 2019 and 2020, and Walgreens blames the San Francisco closures on “organized” crime that has gotten out of control.

Walgreens said it has closed a total of 22 locations this year because “retail theft across our San Francisco stores has continued to increase in the past few months to five times our chain average.”

Is shoplifting really to blame?
Not everyone, however, believes retail crime in San Francisco rises to the level seen in viral videos. A recent OpEd in the San Francisco Chronicle by a Chicago resident claimed that we’re experiencing a “shoplifting panic.” The author said corporate greed is the real reason for store closures since Walgreens had long planned to eliminate 200 stores nationwide to maximize profit.

Yet the New York Times reported extensively on “San Francisco’s shoplifting surge.” And Target says it’s also a target of crime. The retailer announced earlier this year that San Francisco stores would only remain open until 6pm because of an “alarming rise” in shoplifting.

Safeway also said it would reduce the hours of its large 24-hour location in the Castro — closing it at 9pm — because of “an increasing amount of theft.” The store had already eliminated self-checkout stands near the entrance and removed all shopping carts from outside after 160 were stolen.

Here/Say Media profiled a former Target security guard who quit his job because he didn’t feel safe. Rafael Gutierrez said he witnessed bold and shameless shoplifting every day. People filled laundry baskets and garbage bags with items. They emptied shelves and walked out with impunity. Some encounters turned violent, like when he had to dodge wine bottles being smashed on the floor.

Still, the San Francisco Chronicle used police data to question whether shoplifting was the main reason for Walgreens closing stores. The article pointed out small numbers of reported thefts at the locations slated to close while showing a map of a possible oversaturation of stores in a business climate affected by the pandemic and Amazon deliveries.

Crime data is only as good as what gets reported
A former property manager of a Walgreens store tweeted the Chronicle article didn’t take into account that police crime data is only as good as the crimes that get reported — and his Walgreens had “stopped reporting” retail theft “since there was no point” with “multiple shoplifting incidents every single day.”

At a recent press conference, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said retail theft is “underreported” and the current data does not reflect what is actually happening.

The Chronicle article that questioned whether shoplifting was the reason Walgreens stores were closing acknowledged that property crime is a problem: “San Francisco does struggle with unusually high property crime rates compared with many other cities. According to a 2019 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco had the highest rate of property crime per capita of any city in the state.”

Without reliable police data to back up the claims made by Walgreens, this gives people reason to question whether Walgreens is basing the closure on crime or a desire for higher profits.

If Walgreens stores weren’t reporting thefts to police to create an accurate record that journalists could look at, then Walgreens should release its internal loss reports to show how much product shrinkage each store experienced.

This follow-up article by the Chronicle further acknowledges that a “lack of clear data” makes it difficult to truly see the scope of the problem.

The biggest victims
While retail crime affects the inventory and bottom line of businesses big and small, the residents of San Francisco are also victims. Some neighborhoods lose their only pharmacy when a Walgreens closes, which puts a burden on many seniors and families with children.

Small businesses are also hurting from crime, and not just because of shoplifting. Repeated vandalism was the reason a decor store in the Excelsior neighborhood recently closed. The local retailer wrote a heartfelt post on the Nextdoor platform that generated hundreds of comments and reactions.

“We experienced an insane amount of vandalism on our windows, our locks, our gates, and on our property within just one month of being there. And when we call the police department they never come out,” the owner wrote. “We are a small business that is just starting out and we wanted to bring nothing but greatness to the Excelsior District, where I was born and raised. Unfortunately the cost of all this vandalism has become too great for our small business.”

Residents are the biggest victims when local business districts suffer.

It’s time to tell public officials to prosecute organized retail theft and increase police patrols in shopping districts to deter crime.

If you agree, join my group Stop Crime SF and add your name to our form.

A recent NPR report suggests more community policing is a cost-effective way to reduce serious crime without “having to lock up a bunch of people.” It said research “supports the case for police reform while also reminding us why police are important for public safety.”

It’s possible to have lower crime without overcrowded jails. The key factor is deterrence. Safety and justice can go together. We can support police and prison reform while asking public officials to keep everyone safe.

Originally published at https://engardio.com on October 17, 2021.

Forward-thinking + pragmatic Democrat, civil liberties advocate, award-winning journalist, Westside SF homeowner. My local views at www.engardio.com/issues