Car Break-Ins Are Up in San Francisco. What's Being Done?

11 min
San Francisco has more than 30,000 car break ins during 2017. (Gabriele Barni/Flickr)

This story was updated on Feb. 21 to reflect an announcement from San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.

If you park your car in San Francisco, there's a decent chance you've been hit by the smash and dash.

San Francisco resident Elizabeth Heller had her car broken into a few years ago. She left her bag in the back seat and when she got back from dinner, it was gone.

"It shook me for a while. Someone stole my stuff. That's not cool," she says. "Every time you walk down the street, there's glass on the ground, and it just seems like it's so rampant."

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The statistics bear out Heller's observations.

In Oakland and San Francisco, break-ins are increasing at an alarming rate. Oakland had about 10,000 in 2017 -- 24 percent more than in 2016. San Francisco saw more than 30,000 last year -- nearly triple the number reported in 2010. (San Jose had about 5,000, which is in line with the annual number reported over the past decade.)

It seems everyone has a story to tell. Just do a quick search on the internet and you'll find stories about a tourist chasing after their stolen car on foota photographer who lost a couple's wedding photos or an Olympic skater who had her skates and costumes stolen from her rental car.

With so many reports of break-ins, our question asker Elizabeth Heller wants to know:

"What is being done? What steps is the city taking to combat this problem? Or is this just a reality that happens every day?"

The Inside Scoop

Most of the burglars breaking into cars are career criminals and work in organized groups the police call "crews."

According to a 2016 civil grand jury report, these crews are made up of two to five people. They operate in their cars, and usually have paper license plates so they can't be tracked down.

The report estimates that 70 to 80 percent of all car break-ins in San Francisco are done by these crews.

Sgt. Steven Spagnuolo works at Central Station in North Beach and spends a lot of his time chasing down car burglars. He has gotten to know how they operate.

"I’m looking for cars that we know have committed burglaries in the last couple weeks," he says. "If we see one, we know they might not be up to no good."

When he goes on patrol, he's watching for people driving slowly, looking into cars with flashlights, or cars backed into spots so they can pull out faster.

He says the thieves usually take their loot to two big open-air markets where illegal deals are made. One is in the Mid-Market neighborhood at Seventh and Market streets. The other is in the Tenderloin, at Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street.

If someone is caught breaking into a car, it’s a felony. If they steal something worth more than $950, that's a second felony. Each felony carries a maximum of three years in jail, but unless someone has been caught multiple times, chances are pretty low they'll get that sentence.

When the burglars are caught, Spagnuolo says it's not uncommon to see them right back on the street a short time later.

To crack down on these repeat offenders, the police use a strategy called "bundling," where they track crimes someone commits over time. A case based on multiple incidents is more likely to result in a conviction.

Despite Spagnuolo's efforts, the police barely make a dent in the numbers. An arrest is made in only 2 percent of the total break-ins reported.

A car parked in the Temescal Neighborhood of Oakland, Calif. with a sign asking for a car thief to return a sweater.
A car parked in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, with a sign asking for a car thief to return a sweater. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

Why The Rise?

There are a few theories about why this is such a problem in San Francisco right now.

1) Cars are packed close together, and it's easy to break into one car after another.
2) We have a lot of tourists who leave stuff in their cars out of necessity, or because they aren't aware of the break-in threat.
3) The things we leave in our cars have gotten more expensive over the years. Burglars once stole CD players -- now they steal laptops.

The crooked part of Lombard Street is a hotspot for car break ins.
The crooked part of Lombard Street is a hotspot for car break ins. (Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)

Taking Action

On Feb. 21, District Attorney George Gascon announced he's asking the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for $1 million to help curtail car break-ins. He also announced a website and telephone tip line to report car break-ins.

Gascon says he wants to re-start a program that would register private surveillance cameras that could then provide evidence to police.

Last summer, San Francisco Police Chief William Scott disbanded a citywide serial crimes unit dedicated to car break-ins. In its place, he unveiled a new plan to designate at least one officer focused on on break-ins at each of the 12 police stations in the city.

"I was happy because [serial crimes unit] wasn’t helping my neighborhoods that I serve," says San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen. She argues the old unit focused on touristy areas around town, and wasn't helping residential neighborhoods. "We need that focused attention at every district station."

Ronen represents the Mission district, which saw a 47 percent increase in car break-ins from 2016 to 2017.

Right now, the police are rolling out the plan at Taraval Station in the Sunset District. In six months, the city will hold a hearing to evaluate if it’s working.

Fending for Yourself

If you really want to stop your car being broken into, maybe you should take a tip from a car burglar.

Cornelius, who asked that we not use his last name, broke into cars for more than 30 years. He started when he was 19 years old, and got hooked.

"I liked it. It was easy. I always had money in my pocket. And I didn't have to work. It would take 15 minutes for the whole day," he says.

Cornelius would throw the ceramic end of a spark plug at the middle of the car window to break it. Ceramic is denser than glass, so that's why it breaks.

A rescue safety tool designed to break your window if you are trapped inside. Sergeant Spagnuolo says the tool is commonly used by car burglars to break car windows.
A rescue safety tool designed to break your window if you are trapped inside. Sgt. Spagnuolo says the tool is commonly used by car burglars to break car windows. (Sergeant Steven Spagnuolo)

A lot of burglars nowadays use a rescue safety tool designed to break your window if you are trapped inside.

Back in the '80s, Cornelius was making about $100 to $200 a night. Then, when he turned 27, he started stealing the whole car. He would make upward of $2,500 a night.

He was stealing cars to support his drug habit. He did it so often, and for so long, that he would get orders from the chop shops to steal certain cars. And he wasn't operating just in the Bay Area.

"It can be from L.A. to Baja all the way up to Mount Lassen. Never, never out of the state," he says.

Cornelius stopped stealing cars about four years ago. He says he "retired" from the business when he was caught selling drugs -- twice in two days -- and decided he was done being a criminal.

Cornelius broke into cars in San Francisco for more than 30 years.
Cornelius broke into cars in San Francisco for more than 30 years. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

Now, he drives a car retrofitted to protect against other car thieves, and he has a few recommendations to share.

"You shouldn't be leaving nothing inside of your car in the first place, especially if you care for it," he says. "And if you protect your windows, your car is guaranteed not to get broken into."

Cornelius listed three car alarm systems: the Avital, the Python and the Viper. He says they can alert your phone -- so you’ll know immediately if someone has broken your window.

"Also, never put anything in your trunk if you're going to walk away from it because somebody is watching you," he says. "Just like you're looking around, somebody is also looking around ... and it might be me. And that's a bad situation altogether."

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