Stop Crime SF featured in the San Francisco Chronicle
By Heather Knight
San Francisco Chronicle
March 29, 2019
It’s surely the rare San Francisco city employee who has a nickname bestowed by residents and especially rare that the nickname is an affectionate one and doesn’t contain a single four-letter word.
But to scores of city residents, Shirin Oloumi is known reverentially as the Queen of Car Break-ins. No, it’s not because she smashes car windows and swipes backpacks with abandon. It’s because she prosecutes the guys who do.
If you break into a car in San Francisco and, in a small miracle, police arrest you — it happens less than 2 percent of the time — Oloumi will know about it. Every car break-in arrest crosses her desk at the Hall of Justice, and she’s the one in the district attorney’s office who decides whether to charge it as a crime.
She works with police to strengthen their cases. She works with neighborhood groups fed up with incessant property crime. She knows the case law inside and out. She knows all the repeat offenders, who tend to work in organized gangs, and how they’re connected. She handles the most serious cases herself, taking them before a judge.
“It’s a distinct unit, in that I’m the unit,” she said with a laugh, shrugging off her nickname. “Anybody in that position would have been called that, I’m sure. King or queen.”
When District Attorney George Gascón created an auto burglary unit in early 2015, he tapped Oloumi for the position.
“She’s passionate, detail-oriented and dedicated,” Gascón said. “She also gets results.”
The numbers bear him out. In 2014, the year before Oloumi took the job, the district attorney’s office prosecuted 73 percent of auto burglary arrests. Last year, that number rose to 82 percent.
San Francisco’s car break-in epidemic reached its peak in 2017 when more than 31,000 incidents were reported to police, and puddles of shattered glass were as familiar as fog and seagulls. Probably because of a mix of factors — including increased prosecution, heightened media attention and the city’s public awareness campaigns about leaving nothing in cars — the frequency of the crime is down significantly.
Last year saw a 17 percent reduction in reports of car break-ins compared with 2017. Police statistics show 3,581 car break-ins reported in the first two months of this year, down 21 percent from the same time period last year and down 30 percent from the same time period in 2017.
“The last couple of years, we as a community have done a great job,” said Oloumi, 33. “I’ve done my best to shine a light on these crimes and why they matter. I think the Police Department has too.”
It wasn’t long ago that many San Franciscans thought City Hall and the Hall of Justice didn’t care a lick about car break-ins. And they were right. Nobody did much about the city’s property crime epidemic because, hey, at least they weren’t violent crimes.
But sometimes they were. There was the repeat car break-in assailant who tossed a Chihuahua she found in a car from a seven-story parking garage, killing the animal. There were the car break-in suspects who tried to run over an undercover police officer at Alamo Square.
Last year, I told you last year about Deshawn Patton, a prolific auto burglar who once rammed a police car with officers inside and another time slammed into a man’s car, sending him to the hospital for several days.
Oloumi took Patton’s case before a grand jury, which indicted him on 20 counts including 11 felonies. He was sentenced to four years in state prison last fall, with Oloumi wrapping up the case just 10 days before going on maternity leave.
Oloumi also charged Delon Barker, the man who smashed a window and swiped a backpack on Lombard Street in full view of me and a Chronicle photographer last year. He got away after that incident, but was arrested after being identified as the man who broke into more cars in Vacaville and, with two other men, led police on a high-speech chase down Interstate 80. In December, a San Francisco judge at a preliminary hearing held him over for trial. He’s due back in court April 18.
“Especially with certain people who do car burglaries as almost their job, they have a very, very high interest in not getting caught,” Oloumi said. “It can turn dangerous, which is why we should take these crimes more seriously.”
She knows the drill very well. The men work in groups — a driver, a lookout and somebody to break the window and swipe the goods. They’re especially interested in Apple products, including iPads and MacBooks, which can fetch $300 or more at Seventh and Market streets. They have their preferred fencer, whisk the electronics to him and ditch everything else.
“It’s a very quick transaction, and they’re on their way with cash,” Oloumi said.
Oloumi is taking a year off and plans to return to the Hall of Justice this fall. I met her the other day at her home in Oakland where she was taking care of her baby girl and her dog, Bandit. It’s an unusual name for the pup of a woman who prosecutes thieves, but her husband, a private attorney, named the dog before they married.
Oloumi, a Southern California native, majored in English literature at UCLA before attending law school at Hastings. She wanted to work at the public defender’s office, but her application was routed to the district attorney’s office instead. She’s worked there for the past seven years.
“I really like it,” she said. “You get to be a part of the worst moments of some people’s lives. If you can make it a little bit better, I think that’s a worthy cause.”
Fans of the Queen of Car Break-ins say she does make life better for San Franciscans.
Joel Engardio is vice president of Stop Crime SF, a group of 500 city residents determined to see a drop in property crime. The group runs the Court Watch program, keeping in touch with Oloumi about important cases and sending volunteers to hearings so judges can see that residents are paying attention.
Engardio said other assistant district attorneys might dismiss the Court Watch crew as “troublemakers or even cranks,” but Oloumi sees them as partners in pushing the city to take property crime seriously.
“A lot of our volunteers consider her a hero,” he said. “Often crime victims don’t feel heard or supported in San Francisco, but when you see Shirin there being so tenacious and being an advocate for the people, that goes a long way.”
Oloumi said she’s tenacious because no city should tolerate rampant car break-ins. Not only can they turn violent, but the items taken may be trash to the thieves but invaluable to the owner.
“Part of my job is to impress upon judges that these crimes still matter,” Oloumi said. “Not just for the victims, but to the people of San Francisco.”
Thanks, Queen. You rule.