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Is SFPD's 'Bait Car' Plan the Answer to Stop Over 13,000 Vehicle Break-Ins?

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Cars parked along a city street.
Cars parked along Washington Street in San Francisco on March 17, 2020. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

A week after the San Francisco Police Department announced new plans to increase its patrols in areas where car burglaries are highest — and to deploy new strategies to catch those committing crimes — questions remain about how effective those efforts will be.

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, Supervisor Catherine Stefani and police Chief Bill Scott held a press conference in front of the Palace of Fine Arts last week, citing a plan for police to stop getaway cars by using spike strips as well as stationing bait cars equipped with cameras and GPS to catch thieves.

“Tourism deployment was something that we did a couple of years ago,” said Scott, during the press conference. “We saw all kinds of property crimes go down — and then due to funding, due to staffing shortages — we weren’t able to sustain that well. We have staffed those units back up and we plan to do that.”

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With over 13,000 car break-ins reported in San Francisco this year so far, according to SFPD, the public outcry for police to combat theft has steadily grown.

Reports of auto break-ins have become a common discussion among residents and one of the most visible signs of property crimes that have plagued the city in recent years.

According to SFPD data (PDF),  there were 22,700 car break-ins reported in 2022. The highest number of break-ins was in 2017 with 31,000. Those figures could potentially be higher, in part, because not all crimes are reported.

According to San Francisco resident Marina Greenwood, car break-ins near the Palace of Fine Arts happen at least five times a day.

“People are just shaking their heads in disbelief that it will take, not even two minutes, to go take a quick picture [and when] they come back … the back [of the] car is totally broken,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a tourist come to my house and [ask] if we have video surveillance because all of their passports have been stolen and they’re on their way to the airport.”

Local law enforcement’s announcement comes months before San Francisco’s busy tourist seasons in October and November, with concerns over the frequency that rental cars and vehicles with out-of-state plates are targeted.

Police Chief Scott added that the department plans to deploy more officers in major tourist areas such as Lombard Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. Kevin Benedicto, a member of the commission, helped draft a policy that the chief will introduce in September.

“It can actually work as a de-escalation tactic because it prevents suspects from fleeing at high speeds,” Benedicto said in reference to deploying spike strips.

Yet, Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, said it’s an expensive tactic.

“You’ve gotta actually have the vehicle outfitted and then you have to stock it with all of this stuff that can be traced. Then, you have to actually trace it and you have to do it in significant numbers such that car thieves are going to be deterred,” Bazelon said.

She said the strategy is unlikely to be successful, especially when over 80% of San Francisco’s auto burglaries are currently unsolved.

Bazelon noted that it is very difficult to get statistics for how well bait-car programs work, partly because only a small number of vehicles are used. This makes it harder to track.

She noted that the public perception and conversation around car break-ins began to ramp up during the pandemic and has only gotten worse since.

“I think part of it is that it’s now part of an organized crime ring where it’s gotten incredibly sophisticated,” Bazelon said. “People smash and grab in a very efficient way.”

Bazelon said the other problem is that people committing car break-ins in the city are not deterred from stopping partly because of the low clearance rates, which include the initial arrest, prosecution and conviction of a crime.

“At one point, [the clearance rate] was hovering around 9%,” she said. “So, if you have a 91% chance of getting away with a crime, you’re not going to be deterred by the police.”

Scott, however, said he is confident that with additional funding from the city budget and two police academies graduating this fall, SFPD will be ready to use these new tools.

He added that the department plans to use bait cars immediately, but didn’t specify the details of the operation to ensure would-be car thieves aren’t privy to the information.

KQED’s Annelise Finney and Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman contributed reporting to this story.

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