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'Don't Take Our Kindness for Weakness': SFPD Unveils Strategy to Reduce Retail Shoplifting

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A police officer in a black face covering leans against his car door as a man with two small kids stands on the other side of the car.
Pedestrians wait to cross the street as a San Francisco police officer stands guard on Grant Avenue in Chinatown on March 17, 2021, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The mayor and police chief of San Francisco announced Wednesday they’ll dedicate more police, beef up coordination and make it easier to report shoplifters in an attempt to crack down on brazen commercial thieving that has added to the city’s reputation as soft on crime.

Mayor London Breed said at a news conference that organized shoplifting results in closed pharmacies and markets, hurting people who rely on those establishments for work, medication and food. She said that while San Francisco is known for its compassion, stealing will not be tolerated.

“We care about criminal justice reform. We care about second chances. We care about making sure that people are not wrongly accused,” she said. “But don’t take our kindness for weakness, our compassion for weakness.”

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The frustration and fear have been fueled by widely circulating images of shoplifting caught on video. This summer, shoplifters in masks carrying armfuls of designer handbags sprinted from a downtown Neiman Marcus department store and into getaway cars. In June, a masked man was caught on video at a Walgreens, stuffing items into a trash bag before cruising out of the store on a bicycle.

The Walgreens shoplifting suspect has been arrested and officers continue investigating and arresting other suspects, said San Francisco Police Chief William Scott. But they need to do more to alleviate the fear and make San Francisco a welcoming place as it emerges from the pandemic, he said.

SFPD’s organized retail crime unit will increase from two to six investigators, and an ambassador program of retired officers will increase from eight to 25 people tasked with patrolling high-profile commercial areas. The department is working to make it easier for retailers to report theft and created a post for a dedicated retail theft coordinator.

“We’re not going to arrest everybody, although we’d like to,” said Scott. “But just know that you don’t get a free pass when you come to this city and commit those types of crimes.”

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San Francisco’s public defender, Mano Raju, said bulking up on “failed approaches” won’t bring about meaningful change.

“It may shift the target, but it will not impact financially motivated crime generally,” he said in a statement. “We need to focus our resources to treat the source of the problem.”

Crime overall is up 2% this year compared with the same time period last year. The police department recorded just over 19,000 reports of larceny theft this year, compared with more than 25,500 last year and 42,000 in 2019.

Scott said he expects shoplifting numbers to go up as it becomes easier to report cases.

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