By George Wooding and Frank Noto
During a recent citizen and police gathering in District 7, Park Station police captain John Sanford stated that “97% of the crime in D7 is due to car break-ins and 67% of those break-ins were to rental cars.”
All too often, residents and visitors/tourists to San Francisco experience the disappointment of finding their car window smashed and valuables gone. In 2015, auto burglars in the City and County of San Francisco walked off with more than $19 million in stolen goods. The problem of stolen property and cars damaged by break-ins has become so common it is considered part of the cost of City life.
Unfortunately, auto burglary in San Francisco occurs more than 70 times a day, every day, across all neighborhoods, and to all kinds of people — especially to visitors driving rental cars. Thieves can recognize rental cars because of company decals and bar codes on windshields, bumpers, and side windows.
Car break-ins in San Francisco really took off shortly after state voters passed Proposition 47 on November 4, 2014. The purpose of Proposition 47 was to reduce California’s population of prisoners who had been convicted of non-violent, low-level crimes. Additionally, crimes including many car break-ins that used to be felonies were reduced to misdemeanors.
While statewide evidence for a link between Prop. 47 and car break-ins may be mixed, the new state law created a perfect environment for car break-ins: more released criminals and misdemeanor charges for many car break-ins. Now, if someone breaks into your car and steals less than $950 they may be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Additionally, there must be an eyewitness to the crime or tangible evidence such as broken glass on a suspect’s clothing. A misdemeanor charge may mean no more than a night in jail, particularly after first-time convictions. These “get out of jail for free” citations allow a perpetrator to be breaking into cars the next day.
The 2016 Grand Jury report, Auto Burglary in San Francisco, stated:
“This report is based on an investigation conducted from June 2015 through March 2016 into the crime of auto burglary in the County of San Francisco. In the early phase of the research, we learned that the number of car break-ins in 2015 had reached a five-year high — 24,800 recorded incidences. Media sources indicate this is a 34 percent increase over the previous year and almost three times more than reported in 2011. We make a conservative estimate, based on 2015 SFPD data, that theft of property related to these crimes cost victims a minimum of $19 million. This estimate excludes the costs of repairs to vehicles and inconvenience to the victim. This conservative figure calculated from reported incidents only is based upon $1 for each report classified as a misdemeanor and $950 for each report classified as a second degree felony, where $950 is the lower limit for felony property theft. Thus, 20,280 [auto break-ins] X $950 = $19,266,000 minimum value of felony reports plus 4,546 X $1 = $4,546.00 minimum value of misdemeanor reports amounts to a total of $19,270,546.”
In a related story, the New York Times reported, “Recent data from the F.B.I. show that San Francisco has the highest per-capita property crime rate of the nation’s top 50 cities. About half the cases here are thefts from vehicles, smash-and-grabs …”
Unfortunately, of the 24,800 reported incidents in San Francisco in 2015, only 484 (1.9%) arrests were made. Most large Cities have an arrest rate of over 14%. San Francisco has become the national Mecca for people who break into cars.
Drivers of rental cars are constantly targeted because smash-and-grab thieves know that they will often have luggage, high-technology equipment, and the most difficulty coming back to town to testify in court.
“San Francisco has the highest rate of auto burglaries per capita of any major American city," said Frank Noto, co-founder of Stop Crime SF and a resident of Golden Gate Heights. "Tourists and rental cars are an easy target, and from there burglars go on to the cars of neighborhood residents. If the pickings are good, they then go on to case out nearby residences and move on to home burglaries. We can take action to fight crime, and we will.”
Another person unhappy with car break-ins is D7 Supervisor Norman Yee. Yee has had enough. He is working diligently with the local police to stop car break-ins for local residents, but he has also introduced an ordinance amending the Police Code to prohibit visible barcodes and advertising on rental cars rented in the City or at San Francisco International Airport.
Yee’s rental car ordinance would remove any and all barcodes on all rental car windows; any identifying slogans used by the rental car company; any identifying mark used by the rental company; any address, phone number, e-mail address, website address, or other contact information used by the Rental Company; the words “rent” or “rental,” or any variation thereof; and finally, any other advertisement for the rental company.
“I have heard one too many times the lasting negative impact car break-ins have on our neighborhoods and the dreadful impressions they leave on our tourists who are victimized when visiting our world-renowned city," Yee said. "Enough is enough. My legislation is a step forward to protect tourists and rental car consumers from being further targeted. It is a small step forward. Public safety requires a multi-pronged approach and I am willing to take decisive action on different strategies that will abate property crime."
Noto agrees with Yee.
“Supervisor Yee’s rental car legislation is just a small part of the answer," Noto said. "The City needs to take more effective action on stopping crime, and the first step is to provide the public data on handling individual crimes as well as neighborhood and citywide crime data. Because there’s some truth to the saying, ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.’ And we need to keep working with the SFPD, District Attorney, Public Defender, Courts, and Probation Departments to keep San Francisco safe. One critical activity we need help on is our Court Watch — watching trials on burglaries and a recent kidnapping — so the judges know we care. If neighbors want to help or join us, they can e-mail us at email@example.com.”
Not too surprisingly, rental car companies and the Teamsters union are opposed to Yee’s rental car Ordinance.
According to the April 26, 2017 edition of Auto Rental News, Sharkey Laguna, a Board Member of the American Car Rental Association (ACRA) said, “As the owner, and often insurer, of tens of thousands of vehicles in San Francisco, no one is more interested in stopping car break-ins and theft than the car rental industry.” Laguna is the owner of Bandago, a van rental company based in San Francisco, and a member of ACRA’s board of directors. “If more signs, notices, and removing bar codes would significantly reduce break-ins, we would not wait for a law in order to take action.
“This legislation makes no sense: It blames the victim for tempting thieves, does nothing to prevent crime, and will over time cost the industry millions of dollars — costs which will ultimately be passed onto consumers in the form of higher rates,” added Laguna. “Like burning your house down in order to prevent graffiti, the proposed cure is worse than the disease. It appears the answer to this problem simply lies in better policing [SF has an arrest rate of just 2.25%; the national average is 14%], not putting up more meaningless notices or making it harder to do business.”
Finally, Mark Gleason, the Secretary/Treasurer for Teamster Union Number 665 takes a confusing stance against Yee’s Proposition in a June 6, 2017 letter. “We understand that your proposed legislation would include elimination of barcodes used by rental car companies to track and inventory their fleets. Discussion with our members and rent-a-car operation’s management make clear that this is not a feasible business practice. Implementation would create numerous fleet inventory mishaps. Security experts in the industry assert that the elimination of barcodes will increase auto theft. And independent research shows no correlation of break-ins, as it relates to barcode rental card, versus private autos.”
It is understandable that Gleason is trying to keep his members happy, but please cite your research. It would be very easy for car rental companies to upgrade their less expensive stone-age barcodes with more expensive Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. RFID technology uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects. The tags contain electronically-stored information. These passive tags collect energy from nearby RFID interrogating radio waves. RFID chips costs are dropping rapidly and cost about $.50 per chip. RFID chips can also be placed out of sight. When rental cars adopt RFID due to insurance increases, Mr. Gleason’s opinion will change.
Please support Supervisor Norman Yee’s amendment to remove visible bar codes on car rentals.
About the authors: George Wooding is the president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods (CSFN). Frank Noto is the president of Stop Crime SF.