SAN FRANCISCO -- Auto burglaries have been a notorious problem in San Francisco for years with the number of incidents exploding beginning around 2017. That year there were more than 30,000 break-ins reported in the city. While the numbers have declined, auto burglaries continue to be a daily catastrophe for people across the city, many of them tourists. Police say they are pressing to bring the numbers down and the numbers have dipped slightly.
Visiting from Argentina, the Molina family stopped at Alamo Square in the city for one quick look at a landmark, only to find themselves in the middle of a more notorious San Francisco postcard.
"We walked up to the Painted Ladies to look at them and then we just came back to the car," Maria Molina said. "And they took ... our passports, my computer, my iPad."
Having just driven up from Los Angeles they did not see the warnings.
"We went around and it all seemed so nice and we were talking about how calm the city is and how nice," Molina said.
On the other side of the park, Noemi Aguinaldo was watching and shouting as thieves dove into her car. It didn't make any difference.
"Like a minute or two, when I walked out, walking down there," Aguinaldo said. "I heard, suddenly, a smash, like broken glass. And then, the lady that was here was honking and then I was shouting, 'Hey, don't do that!'"
For as long as San Francisco has been suffering through this wave of auto burglaries, Alamo Square has been right in the middle of it. A question one often hears is 'Why can't they stop this, particularly in a specific location like this one?'
Police get that question a lot as well.
"Yeah, it's a challenge,' said Lt. Scott Ryan of the San Francisco police department. "There's no doubt about it. It's something that we're constantly trying to get innovative, have new ideas, new ways of trying to combat it."
Ryan heads SFPD's auto burglary response. He says the department does have ongoing operations targeting hot spots like Alamo Square but they have to be careful about how they intervene.
In 2018, undercover officers were right on top of a break-in on Hayes Street but the suspects' tried to drive their way out of an arrest. Ryan says police now assume that will be the reaction.
"They're gonna go the wrong way down the street and we're talking about places where there are a lot of people, tourists," Ryan said. "And we don't want to put anybody in a position where we are pursuing somebody through a crowded Lombard Street or something like that. So we really have to be tactful about how we do our investigations."
What police usually try to do is reverse engineer the case by putting other pieces together; spotting the crew members that are casing the cars or taking possession of the stolen property after the burglary. Intervening then, police say, comes with less risk but it takes more help.
"Good thing this lady here got the plate number," Aguinaldo said of her case.
A lot of people think license plates won't help because the car or plate is stolen. Not so.
"The more information we get, honestly the more it's gonna help us," Ryan said.
Stolen plates can still help tie multiple crimes to one group of suspects and then there's device tracking: "This is where my AirPods," Molina said, watching her devices on her phone. "My iPad. Maybe I should go get it."
Police say tracking down those floating icons depends on officer availability at any given moment but it can happen.
"Call us, let us know," Ryan says. "We had a case just last week where we had items that were able to be tracked and it led to a great arrest. We have those happen."
Looking at the numbers year-to-date, 2017 was the big surge. The pandemic years meant fewer targets on the streets and, this year, the numbers have been trending down even though more people are visiting the city. Ryan says his goal is a sustained, downward trend even if it comes slowly at first.
"I understand the frustration," Ryan said. "I really really do. And what I would say is that us in law enforcement, we are really picking and choosing when we interdict so the last thing I would want, as frustrated as people are, for themselves to interdict because we've seen when that's happened ... it has the potential to get violent and we don't want to see that happen."
"So we are lucky they didn't take everything," Molina said of the suitcases that were left.
If you've just come across the aftermath of these burglaries you know that any single one of them can be heartbreaking. Not just for the victims but the city as a whole.
"It makes you not want to come again," Molina said. "And that's really sad because it's such a beautiful city and we were so excited to be here."
Making arrests is only one part of this. As for what comes next, that was discussed during the announcement at the Palace of Fine Arts by District Attorney Brooke Jenkins.
"They have to learn," Jenkins said of criminals. "Not only will the police arrest but, once that case is filed, something meaningful will happen on the back end to serve as a deterrent for future behavior and so that's what we are trying to reinstall in San Francisco right now -- is that, not only will you be caught but, when you were prosecuted, there will be a consequence for that behavior."
That, she said, will take time but the strategy, we're told, is changing. New techniques are on the way. Time will tell how effective it all is, in solving a problem that has become part of the San Francisco landscape.
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