Crime casts shadow on top tourist at­trac­tions

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - BAY AREA - HEATHER KNIGHT

There couldn’t have been a more per­fect San Fran­cisco hol­i­day scene than the one of Na­talie West laugh­ing as she skated around the Union Square ice rink, the tow­er­ing Christ­mas tree shim­mer­ing above and nearby stores glit­ter­ing with red and green dec­o­ra­tions. Her boyfriend stood at the edge of the rink, cradling their sleep­ing baby in one arm and snap­ping pho­tos on his phone with the other.

But this be­ing San Fran­cisco, the joy came to an abrupt end when West’s Ap­ple Watch beeped, no­ti­fy­ing her of a sus­pi­cious charge on her credit card.

Wor­ried, she rushed off the rink and dis­cov­ered that her wal­let, which had been tucked inside her purse in the bot­tom of their baby stroller, had van­ished. Along with it? Her driver’s li­cense, her baby’s med­i­cal card, credit cards, debit cards, gift cards and $300 in cash.

Gone — even though her boyfriend had been stand­ing next to the stroller, keep­ing an eye on it. Even though it was Mon­day morn­ing, and

there were very few peo­ple at the rink. Even though no­body — in­clud­ing me, there to in­ter­view an­other ice skater, who dresses in drag — no­ticed any­body sus­pi­cious.

It was one more blinkand-you’ll-miss-it prop­erty crime in San Fran­cisco. Just one more to add to this year’s tally, which through Oc­to­ber to­taled 43,768, in­clud­ing 21,809 car break-ins. Other prop­erty crimes in­clude steal­ing cars, break­ing into homes or com­mer­cial build­ings, shoplift­ing, snatch­ing wal­lets and, ap­par­ently, even steal­ing from ba­bies.

The good news? Prop­erty crimes are down 8 per­cent from the same time pe­riod last year, and car break-ins are down 16 per­cent. The bad news? Prop­erty crimes are still at epi­demic pro­por­tions, oc­cur­ring an av­er­age of 144 times ev­ery day. There’s rarely an ar­rest.

“I just can’t be­lieve how quickly it hap­pened,” said Eryn Sn­od­grass, West’s boyfriend. The day be­fore, they had flown back from St. Louis, where they spent Thanks­giv­ing with West’s fam­ily, then a night in the city be­fore plan­ning to drive home to Hum­boldt County.

“I’m so mad,” Sn­od­grass con­tin­ued. “It’s like 10:30 in the morn­ing! We’re at an ice skat­ing rink!”

But that’s the point. San Fran­cisco res­i­dents know by now to clutch their purses, wal­lets and phones tightly and not to leave a sin­gle thing in their car. (I had a col­league tell me he even re­moved a bot­tle of Tums from the front seat the other day be­cause, in this city, you just never know.) But tourists are of­ten un­sus­pect­ing, and the city’s ef­forts to ed­u­cate them re­main half­hearted.

Politi­cians and po­lice have bragged re­peat­edly that prop­erty crimes and car break-ins are down from last year’s epic high. But what they don’t men­tion is that they’ve ac­tu­ally gone up in the area pa­trolled by the Cen­tral Sta­tion, which in­cludes most of San Fran­cisco’s ma­jor tourist des­ti­na­tions: Union Square, Fish­er­man’s Wharf, Lom­bard Street, North Beach, Nob Hill and much of the Em­bar­cadero.

Through Oc­to­ber, Cen­tral Sta­tion had seen 9,106 prop­erty crimes, a 13 per­cent in­crease from the same time pe­riod last year. Car break-ins are up 4 per­cent, and bur­glar­ies, which in­clude home break-ins and shoplift­ing, are up a whop­ping 48 per­cent.

You’d think City Hall would be laser-fo­cused on pro­tect­ing tourists, who bring $9 bil­lion into the city ev­ery year. But the ef­forts have been un­even.

As a su­per­vi­sor, Mayor London Breed pushed leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing rental car com­pa­nies to in­form cus­tomers of the city’s car break-in epi­demic. But those com­pa­nies just in­clude easy-tomiss writ­ten warn­ings in their piles of pa­per­work, and the city hasn’t moved on re­quir­ing an oral warn­ing in­stead.

The San Fran­cisco Po­lice Depart­ment’s “Park Smart” cam­paign has in­cluded leaflet­ing parked cars, but by the time tourists have parked their cars and left to ex­plore the city, it’s of­ten too late. In­cred­i­bly, some of the city’s big­gest tourist hot spots still have no signs warn­ing tourists of the crime wave.

Loyal read­ers may re­call my col­umns on the car break-in epi­demic on the flat block above the twisty part of Lom­bard Street. A Chron­i­cle pho­tog­ra­pher and I even wit­nessed a break-in as we were there re­port­ing. At the time, then-Mayor Mark Far­rell, who as su­per­vi­sor rep­re­sented that neigh­bor­hood at City Hall, said he would “ab­so­lutely” di­rect city staff to in­stall warn­ing signs there.

Are there any 10 months later? Nope.

And so the break-ins keep hap­pen­ing. Tina Bartlett Hinck­ley, a real es­tate agent who lives on the block, was the reader who tipped me off to what she called “an­ar­chy” in the area. All th­ese months later, or­ga­nized crews con­tinue to tar­get the block, she said, of­ten team­ing up in two cars — one with scouts and the other with the thieves.

“I am stand­ing out­side with an English fam­ily that just had ev­ery­thing stolen from their car,” Bartlett Hinck­ley emailed me from her phone a few weeks ago. “Daugh­ter’s 18th birth­day present stolen. Great pub­lic­ity and good will for S.F.”

We chat­ted later, and I heard more of the story. The English fam­ily was in San Fran­cisco cel­e­brat­ing the suc­cess of the fa­ther’s re­cent surgery and the daugh­ter’s birth­day.

They had just checked out of their ho­tel and had parked to take in the view of curvy Lom­bard for a few min­utes be­fore driv­ing to Napa. They re­turned to the car to find their pass­ports, air­plane tick­ets, money, med­i­cal sup­plies and the daugh­ter’s birth­day neck­lace gone.

“When I told them I was so ter­ri­bly sorry, I started to cry,” Bartlett Hinck­ley said.

Sure, it’s easy to dis­miss a stolen neck­lace or a swiped wal­let as no big deal. No­body got hurt. No­body died. But the crimes can be not only lo­gis­ti­cal night­mares, but soul-crush­ing, too. And we shouldn’t ac­cept that any­body who takes their eye off their be­long­ings for a mo­ment de­serves what they get.

The Po­lice Depart­ment does seem to be try­ing to com­bat th­ese some­times dev­as­tat­ing crimes. David Steven­son, a po­lice spokesman, said po­lice are mak­ing progress on car break-ins and other prop­erty crime by in­creas­ing the num­ber of plain­clothes teams and foot pa­trols, adding in­ves­ti­ga­tors to the dis­trict sta­tions, cre­at­ing a spe­cial unit to ad­dress se­rial car bur­glars, fo­cus­ing on bur­glary hot spots and step­ping up fin­ger­print train­ing.

“Still, we rec­og­nize that too many San Fran­cisco res­i­dents, work­ers and vis­i­tors con­tinue to be im­pacted, and we will con­tinue to work hard to com­bat th­ese crimes,” he said, adding that the “Park Smart” cam­paign will be in full force dur­ing the holi­days.

Back at the Union Square ice rink, Na­talie West and Eryn Sn­od­grass, who own a bar and grill near Eureka, were an­gry and per­plexed. Rink man­age­ment pulled the footage from a se­cu­rity cam­era and saw a man wear­ing a dark base­ball cap and striped ski jacket ap­pear on screen and just as quickly dis­ap­pear with the wal­let.

West talked to her bank and credit card com­pa­nies and learned the thief was al­ready rack­ing up charges at BART Clip­per ma­chines and at Tar­get and Wal­greens.

“You don’t need to be Sher­lock Holmes to solve this crime,” Sn­od­grass said.

It would help, though. There are rarely any con­se­quences for prop­erty crime per­pe­tra­tors in San Fran­cisco. Last year, just 1.6 per­cent of car break-ins led to an ar­rest. Ice rink man­age­ment flagged nearby of­fi­cers, who took a re­port from West and Sn­od­grass and emailed a pic­ture of the sus­pect ob­tained from the se­cu­rity cam­era footage to other of­fi­cers in the area.

Of­fi­cer Ja­son Cas­tro said prop­erty crimes would prob­a­bly oc­cur even more fre­quently dur­ing the busy hol­i­day shop­ping season and that every­body should be mind­ful of their valu­ables at all times.

“There are a lot of op­por­tunists out here,” he said. “If it’s im­por­tant to you, don’t leave it be­hind. It will be taken.”

Now those are the words that should be posted on signs at tourist hot spots all over the city. In mul­ti­ple lan­guages.

Of­fi­cer Gor­don Wong said con­sid­er­ing that West’s wal­let had just been stolen and they had a pic­ture of the sus­pect, an ar­rest was “doable.”

But it wasn’t. West, back at home now, said she has heard noth­ing more from po­lice, and she’s in­creas­ingly up­set ev­ery time she in­stinc­tively reaches for a credit card or her driver’s li­cense and re­mem­bers they’re gone.

“I feel like when you pay $18 to en­ter an en­closed area, you wouldn’t ex­pect va­grants or crim­i­nals to be hang­ing around,” she texted. “I learned a tough les­son.”

It’s a tough les­son learned ev­ery day in San Fran­cisco — 144 times.

Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle

Na­talie West of Eureka holds her 9-month-old son, Seven, at S.F.’s Union Square on Mon­day as she talks to Of­fi­cer Gor­don Wong (left) and Of­fi­cer Ja­son Cas­tro about the theft of her wal­let at the ice rink.

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