Stop Crime SF featured in the San Francisco Chronicle.
By Evan Sernoffsky
San Francisco Chronicle
February 14, 2019
A wedding day is supposed to be one of the happiest times, creating memories that many couples cherish forever. But for one bride and groom on a recent visit to San Francisco, their special day will be recalled not only for what was gained, but what was lost.
After the tourists from Asia parked near 16th Avenue and Moraga Street in the Sunset District and as they posed for photos on the dazzling mosaic steps there — a low-key but popular spot for professional photo shoots and Instagram selfies — their vehicle was ransacked.
The late January theft was just one of roughly 60 auto break-ins that happen every day in San Francisco, a rolling epidemic that The Chronicle is now tracking in an interactive map that shows, in near real time, when and where each of the city’s car break-ins occur. The map will be updated daily.
While this year’s daily tally remains stark compared to other major cities — San Francisco has the worst property-crime rate in the country — it’s a significant improvement from 2017, when the city saw a staggering and record-setting 85 auto break-ins a day. Police officials say they hope to continue driving the numbers down.
But even as auto burglaries are on the decline, the marauders who continue to feast on vehicles around the city appear to be as organized, and often as bold, as ever.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” said Frank Noto, board president of Stop Crime SF, an association of neighborhood groups dedicated to reducing crime and holding officials accountable. “These gangs are very well organized, and we have found if folks try to get involved, they can get hurt.”
The violation against the newlyweds happened around 2:40 p.m. on Jan. 28, police said. When the couple returned from taking photos half an hour after parking, they found the windows of their rented Ford sedan smashed out and their luggage and passports gone.
The caper is an all-too-common story in the neighborhood around the majestic steps. Neighbors have tried to help stem the torrent of crime by perching cameras on their homes that flank the staircase, which they share with police and community groups like Stop Crime SF. One camera caught the dumbfounded bride and groom, wearing a wedding dress and tuxedo, next to their burgled car.
There’s usually plenty of parking near the tiled steps, and the residential surroundings give visitors a false sense of security. Knowing this, police and neighbors have posted signs up and down the street warning visitors of “daytime thieves.”
“We’re the richest city in the world. It’s very touristic, and people are taking advantage of this,” said Steven Moussouras, 58, who lives on the north side of the stairs and has seven cameras on his home.
Moussouras said he regularly gives police videos and still images of crooks in action. Though he’s lived in the neighborhood for 47 years, he said auto break-ins have more recently spiral out of control. “I think it’s the same people over and over again,” he said.
He’s probably right. Police say most auto burglaries are perpetrated by a small group of calculating criminals who know what they’re looking for and where to find it.
Tourists are prime targets because they often drive vehicles full of valuables and may be unaware of the break-in epidemic. Their visits are limited, meaning they typically aren’t available to testify in court in the rare case a perpetrator is caught. Police make an arrest in fewer than 2 percent of car break-ins, according to department figures.
While no neighborhood is immune from auto burglaries, the criminals seem to target a handful of hot spots like the steps in the Sunset, the curvy stretch of Lombard Street, Twin Peaks and Alamo Square.
Another incident, similar but perhaps even more startling, took place around 11 a.m. on Feb. 6, when three tourists from Asia were sitting in their car on 16th Avenue near Moraga Street, police said. A vehicle pulled up and a man got out. But rather than moving on to an unoccupied car, the man smashed the back window, grabbed a bag and bolted as the three people inside the recoiled in fear.
“They’re getting a lot more brazen,” Noto said. “This is the first time we’ve seen someone break into a vehicle with people still inside.”
Neighbors captured pictures of two vehicles: a silver sport utility vehicle casing the neighborhood and acting as a lookout, and a trailing car from which the crooks emerged. No suspects have been identified or arrested in either case.
But recent efforts by police have gotten results. San Francisco auto break-ins peaked at 31,000 in 2017, then declined 17 percent last year to 26,000 cases — still the second-worst year on record.
The numbers continue to improve. Car burglaries were down 32 percent as of Feb. 6 when compared to the same period in 2018, Police Chief Bill Scott said in his weekly report to the Police Commission.
The officers at Taraval Station are well aware of the issue on 16th Avenue and make regular passes to deter would-be bandits. A team of plainclothes officers often sets up near the hot spot in hopes of catching a burglary in progress. Neighbors like Moussouras, though, want more.
“This (area) needs a permanent police guard,” he said.
The idea has worked in the past. When police officials have stationed patrol officers at some of the worst-hit areas, like the Palace of Fine Arts and Alamo Square, auto burglaries have fallen. But it’s a big city.