San Francisco Offers Cash Rewards in Bid to Crack Down on Auto Burglary Crime Rings

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A woman at a lectern, with two men on her left and one on her right.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, flanked by Police Chief Bill Scott (right), at a press briefing on Oct. 19, 2021, in San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square.  (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

San Francisco will give out cash awards of up to $100,000 for information about the ringleaders of "smash-and-grab" auto burglaries — in yet another push to battle property crime in the city.

The rewards would come from private donors in the tourism and hospitality industry, Mayor London Breed said during Tuesday's news conference, where she was joined by San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott in Ghirardelli Square.

Breed called San Francisco "the most beautiful city in the world," but said the frequency of auto break-ins — particularly prevalent in tourist neighborhoods where rental cars are targeted — has soured visitors and residents alike.

"It is tragic. It is really embarrassing for our city," she said. "It is frustrating. And it gives people the impression that it's not safe to come here."

The city has raised about $225,000 so far — including a contribution from Enterprise Rent-A-Car — and will pay for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “high-level leaders of organized auto burglary fencing operations," Breed's office said, referring to crime rings that resell stolen goods.

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Breed's office said that auto burglaries reported to police have actually declined since 2017, when the city recorded about 31,400 incidents. And although more than 15,000 auto burglaries have already been reported this year, her office said the total number for 2021 is still on track to fall below the nearly 26,000 reported in 2019.

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Scott also noted that the city saw a spike in auto burglary incidents earlier this summer when pandemic restrictions were initially relaxed. But he said there has also been a 37% reduction since July 4, when his department began deploying 26 bike and foot patrols to respond to the uptick.

Breed, however, acknowledged that those falling rates "don't matter to that one person who has that experience."

Authorities have said they believe fewer than a dozen auto burglary crews are responsible for most of the smash-and-grabs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

While not every burglary is driven by organized operations, "we have seen through our investigations that much of this is organized," Scott said.

"And the most damaging part of it is organized," he added.

Recent news reports and viral videos of break-ins have helped propagate the perception — particularly among conservative commentators — that San Francisco is lawless and soft on crime, despite a decrease in incidents.

Last month, Breed and Scott announced the city would dedicate more police to combat retail shoplifting and make it easier to report those incidents.

Sharky Laguana, president of San Francisco's Small Business Commission, helped broker the agreement between the city and the hospitality companies who are putting up the reward money. He said the program is "a cruise missile aimed at the leadership of these fencing rings."

Laguana noted that much public attention around theft has been focused on organized rings targeting large retailers, like Walgreens.

"I think it's important to remember that drugstores aren't the biggest victims," he said. "The biggest victims are working families who don't have the time and money to repair windows, replace phones, go find new bicycles. The biggest victims aren't the big businesses, but the small businesses. They aren't the ones that have to close a couple of stores. They're the ones with no stores left to close."

But some who work near Ghirardelli Square said they were skeptical the city’s new anti-burglary push would make much difference. Adam Lee runs a nearby boutique and said smash-and-grab burglaries, as well as shoplifting, have plagued the area since he set up shop here nearly a decade ago.

As for targeting organized crime rings?

"This is not a new thing," he said. "So why haven't we been doing that?"