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After San Francisco shoplifting video goes viral, officials argue thefts aren't rampant

The city has been gripped by a perception of lawlessness after a string of videos featured people openly shoplifting, seemingly without repercussion.

SAN FRANCISCO — A flurry of shoplifters in masks and hooded jackets sprinted from a downtown Neiman Marcus last week and into getaway cars with armfuls of designer handbags — a scene captured on video and raising fears that rings of thieves were hitting retail businesses.

The incident, which remains under investigation, was only the latest to give an impression of lawlessness running rampant in San Francisco's stores, where people have been caught on recordings openly swiping products seemingly without repercussion.

But city leaders are pushing back at that image after the release Monday of a midyear public safety report. Police data shows overall thefts are down 9 percent in the first six months of the year compared to the same period in 2020, when the city was on lockdown and many businesses closed during the onset of the pandemic.

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott and Mayor London Breed acknowledged that while some crime is up, including aggravated assaults, homicides and incidents with guns, the overall numbers of violent and property crimes have fallen.

"The statistics are counter to the narrative," Scott said at a news conference, while also recognizing that some crimes may go unreported.

"Sadly, as it relates to crime, we've gotten a lot of negative attention," Breed added. "What is not getting the attention is the fact when you do come to San Francisco and commit a crime, you will be arrested by this department."

Retail thefts have gotten the bulk of the attention on social media because of the string of videos. But San Francisco isn't the only city to grapple with the problem: In Seattle, police said last month they made more than 50 arrests linked to coordinated thefts at nine large retailers and grocery stores, and in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the state's top prosecutor, police and big-box stores announced a partnership this month to combat "organized retail crime."

In recent years, some retail stores have been placing not only high-end items but everyday products like toothpaste and shampoo behind security locks. But chains say even more drastic measures are required.

Target said this month that it was closing four hours earlier at six San Francisco locations after a "significant and alarming rise in theft and security incidents at those stores," reported NBC Bay Area.

Both CVS and Walgreens say shoplifting in San Francisco outpaces thefts at their stores across the country. In October, the California Attorney General's Office announced breaking up a major theft ring in the Bay Area in which $8 million worth of merchandise was allegedly swiped from Target, CVS and Walgreens, and then sold in other countries with the earnings laundered back to the United States.

In an interview with NBC News last week, Scott suggested that California's Proposition 47, which voters passed in 2014 and lowered criminal sentences for certain nonviolent crimes like shoplifting and check forgery, is being exploited by those who want to commit theft. The initiative set a threshold of $950 for shoplifting to be considered a misdemeanor, which doesn't prompt law enforcement to make an arrest, rather than a felony, which could incur harsh penalties like jail time.

"Some people calculate, 'Hey, you know, I don't want to go over the $950, so let me steal $949 worth of property,'" Scott said.

"If it's a felony, our officers can take action," he added. "But if it's a misdemeanor, that arrest has to be a private person's arrest. And that makes a difference because they have to be willing to do that."

Store employees often don't feel comfortable getting involved, and some retailers have increased security presence but with limited results.

"Think about these employees in these stores who are a witness to these crimes. They're affected, too," said Rachel Michelin, the president and CEO of the California Retailers Association, a trade group.

She said retailers are doing the best they can, but worry how some city leaders have taken a softer stance on arrests.

The city's district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who took office in January 2020 on a progressive platform that pledged to tackle incarceration rates and endorse diversion programs, has been at the center of a recall effort after complaints of rising crime in the city.

Rachel Marshall, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said in an email Monday that it is serious about dismantling "brazen" networks of organized thieves and partnering with the California Highway Patrol's Organized Retail Crime Task Force to stop the rings.

A bill moving through the state Legislature and supported by the California Retailers Association would renew and fund the Organized Retail Crime Task Force through the end of 2025, focusing on "ringleaders and conspirators of these criminal networks and not the low-level petty thief." One enterprise that was broken up was estimated at $50 million.

"The balance here is to provide a measure of public safety ensuring consumers will not get caught in the middle of a theft in progress by giving law enforcement adequate resources to dismantle organized retail crime operations before they can plot a crime spree," Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat who represents parts of Los Angeles, said.

Criminal justice experts say if California officials agree that moving away from mass incarceration and toward decriminalization of low-level offenses is imperative, then it's important to go after the bosses and co-conspirators rather than focusing on the shoplifters themselves, who may be paid juveniles and homeless people, according to officials.

Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, who researched Proposition 47 and its impact on public safety, found that the initiative had no effect statewide on most crimes through the year after it was enacted, and while there was a modest increase in larcenies and auto thefts, it was too small to reach any significant conclusions.

A similar study in the Journal of Criminal Justice published this month found that Proposition 47 and another related reform law were successful in helping to reduce the state prison population and that the increases in crime that the initiatives may have been linked to in the Los Angeles area were "generally small."

"The evidence seems to be mounting that Prop 47 is not the culprit here or at least not the key culprit," Kubrin said, adding that criminal justice reforms have "become a scapegoat" to blame for the perception of high crime.

California, she added, has seen its property and violent crime rates fall in recent years to historic lows in some cases as the state embarked on reforms. Additional research, however, will be needed, Kubrin said, to see the effect something like Proposition 47 is having on San Francisco and other local communities.

"Nobody cares about big broad statistics," she said. "They care about what's happening in their backyard."

On Monday, Scott said officers in San Francisco were being deployed in more crime-plagued neighborhoods. But he also conceded that it has been difficult recruiting new police officers to the city's department, which remains hundreds of officers short during a climate in which policing remains heavily scrutinized.

"Robberies are one of the categories where cops in the street matter," he told reporters.

Ambrosio Rodriguez, a criminal defense attorney and former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, said cities like San Francisco battling rising crime rates amid calls against over-policing will have to determine how much the public is willing to tolerate in terms of smaller, "victimless" crimes before overall quality of life is an issue.

"I do think no one is going to have much empathy for Neiman Marcus, but that's besides the point," Rodriguez said. "There are stores around there, too. So when people stop going to Neiman Marcus, and the stores around it closes, there will be a larger effect on other businesses and perceptions about whether a place is safe to visit."

"San Franciscans will have to determine what they can put up with," he added.

Erik Ortiz reported from New York and Jacob Ward from San Francisco.