This is the worst week for car break-ins in San Francisco at these hot spots

The scene unfolded in seconds, as Keith Paulsen watched — anger rising — from a car parked near San Francisco’s Alamo Square Park.

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He saw a dark BMW roll up Steiner Street, a block north of the famed Painted Lady Victorians. A passenger jumped out and began casing the sidewalk, cupping his gloved hands to peer into car windows. After glancing into three cars the thief found his target: a backpack tossed enticingly on a seat. In one motion, he broke a window and grabbed it.

Paulsen twisted around to snap a cellphone photo when the BMW sped off, his shock curdling into revulsion. The theft seemed so brazen, carried out on a warm winter afternoon last year, on a hill packed with selfie-snapping tourists.

“He was so quick, in and out of that car with the backpack,” Paulsen recalled. “It only took 15 seconds.”

Like other sightseeing destinations in San Francisco, Alamo Square is a hot spot for car break-ins that spike around the week of Thanksgiving, according to a Chronicle analysis of San Francisco Police Department records from 2021 and 2022. During that week the average number of reports exceeds three a day, commensurate with nearby Hayes Valley.

“A lot of crimes have a seasonal aspect,” said Ernesto Lopez, a research specialist at the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank in Washington D.C. “Seasonal,” in this case, means a temporal shift — like a holiday that brings tourists and out-of-town relatives, and more opportunities for perpetrators. The value of fenced goods might also increase at certain times of year, Lopez said, providing more incentive for burglaries.

Absent a clear explanation for fluctuations in crime, residents tend to draw their own conclusion from anecdotes and folk wisdom. Paulsen and others believe thieves look for obvious signs of a rental car, scoping for new SUVs or stickers on the windshield. Others say perpetrators seek out motorists who forget to curb their wheels — the telltale sign of a visitor, since San Franciscans are usually careful to avoid an expensive parking ticket.

All of these theories are plausible, Lopez said, though he cautioned that car burglaries happen quickly, and generally aren’t that strategic. Maybe the perpetrators look for “one or two indicators” that a car is likely to have luggage, he said, but they don’t run through a checklist.

Police had few answers during a September Board of Supervisors committee hearing on the auto break-in epidemic, at which residents of Alamo Square lined up to vent their frustrations. Some said they’re left to console victims and sweep glass from the sidewalk.

“It’s really disturbing,” Taylor Lapeyre told the Chronicle. His living room window overlooks Alamo Square Park, providing a front row seat to the picturesque hillside — and the aftermath of many burglaries. Often, Lapeyre peers out to see a family in tears after all their possessions are stolen. He’s provided bandages for people who fall and scrape themselves, trying to chase down a car as it speeds off.

For years, officials tried to stave off car break-ins by discouraging residents and visitors from leaving things in their cars. Police and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency staff doled out “public awareness” pamphlets with a “Park smart” slogan — messaging that gave people the sense they were being gaslit, said Jason Jervis, media and communications chair of the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association.

Holding people personally responsible to prevent burglaries amounts to “tacit acceptance,” Jervis said, as though city leaders had deemed the problem intractable and given up on enforcement. 

In Lapeyre’s observation, the theft prevention campaigns haven’t been that effective. Authorities posted signs that are “25 feet up on poles,” with faded lettering, he said, so tourists are oblivious to them. Desperate neighbors tried making their own versions, printing theft advisories that they laminated with saran wrap.

Recently, however, the city government became more proactive. In October Mayor London Breed met with the neighborhood association and “took the time to listen to members’ concerns about car break-ins and crime,” Jervis said. She told the association that city engineers are contemplating street design changes that could restrict vehicle access, and impede thieves from driving into — or quickly peeling out of — the neighborhood.

Capt. Jason Sawyer of San Francisco Police Department’s Northern Station also attended association meetings, and Jervis said he’s noticed more beat officers around Alamo Square Park during “high priority times,” including holidays. Jervis believes these measures have helped, and noted that police have also caught suspected burglars.

Last week, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins charged two people for allegedly playing critical roles in an auto burglary operation. Prosecutors linked one defendant to a smash-and-grab near Alamo Square, and say he later fenced items in the Mission District. He has pled not guilty.

But the coordinated response happened too late for Paulsen, who said that by the end of last year, he’d grown disenchanted with screeching getaway cars and the sight of broken glass. In January, he moved to Redwood City, saying he wanted to live somewhere safer.

He drove up to San Francisco for dinner six months later, at a restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf. It had a sign in the window warning patrons not to leave valuables in their cars — a statement that immediately put Paulsen on edge.

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle


  1. Paul H Johnson says

    San Francisco could arrest almost 100% of the car break-in perpetrators within 15 minutes of the crime.

    Video surveillance technology in place or easily added to high-crime zones could identify the get-away car and capture clear images of the perpetrators. Cops could follow the get-away car in real time with the network of cameras already in place almost everywhere, while other cops zero-in on the get-away car and make the arrest. Software could be written to detect an in-progress car break-in.

    The response of the City of San Francisco is pathetic — let the criminals go free and put the burden and blame on the public for being vulnerable victims. Soft on crime, Spinless and Stupid.

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