All We Know About Auto Burglaries Is That There Are Way Too Many

Why we need a more data-driven criminal justice system to meaningfully reduce property crime

Auto burglary is the scourge of our streets. Last year, more than 31,000 were reported to the Police Department (the actual number is significantly higher, as law enforcement admits thousands go unreported every year). As a result, San Francisco had the highest property crime rate of any major U.S. city.

Yet City Hall’s response to auto burglaries is driven by folk wisdom rather than data. In many ways, City Hall is just shooting into the dark. They’re failing to learn from other cities’ successes, and failing to deploy modern technology to make our criminal justice system work faster and smarter (in a previous post I wrote about how other police departments are using modern technology to fight auto burglaries). There is no vision or leadership on this pressing issue. We can do better.

As Supervisor, I will make sure that we run our entire criminal justice system according to national best practices. We will use data to hold our big criminal justice bureaucracies accountable for actually reducing crime in our neighborhoods.

What we know about auto burglaries

The main thing City Hall knows about auto burglaries is how many are reported every year to the police and which ones result in an arrest. This is compiled on San Francisco’s transparency portal DataSF¹. That’s how we know that since 2010 there’s been a roughly 200% increase in reported auto burglaries. That’s how we also know that over the same time frame the arrest rate for auto burglaries was 1.08%.

If you know how to manipulate large data sets you can determine that last year District 2 suffered from 3,871 auto burglaries that resulted in 25 arrests. If you know how to use GIS software, then you can pinpoint how many incidents and arrests happened around, say, the Palace of Fine Arts.

Last year District 2 suffered from 3,871 auto burglaries that resulted in 25 arrests.

However, without these skills there’s no way a regular San Franciscan can get an alert if there has been a property crime on their block or what the level of crime is in their neighborhood. We can do better.

As Supervisor, I will ensure that everybody can easily access data on the crime in their neighborhood, and that we can all use evidence to hold City Hall and our criminal justice system accountable for actually reducing crime. I will also ensure that the Police Department is providing our police officers and captains with the data and data-analysis tools they need to effectively fight crime.

What we know about auto burglary prosecutions

City Government knows how many people are arrested for auto burglary (1,669 from 2010 to 2017), and how many are prosecuted. But what happens to them after that is a bit of a mystery.

In 2017, the District Attorney’s Office was given 499 auto burglary cases to prosecute. Felony charges were sought in 389 and 173 resulted in time served². I made a public records request with the DA’s Office to obtain more information as to how long those auto burglars spent in jail. I received a big and somewhat incomprehensible PDF file, but did not receive any information on how much jail time each auto burglar was sentenced to or how much they served. Neither the Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office, nor the Courts track this information in a systematic way.

The Courts and the DA’s Office even have different figures for the percentage of auto burglary convictions that resulted in time served in custody, which means San Francisco’s criminal justice data is so bad that two agencies working so closely together can end up with such disparate answers to a basic question.

It is mind-boggling that City Hall spends more than $1 billion on our criminal justice system every year, yet no one in city government can answer the simple question of what is the average prison sentence for auto-burglary in San Francisco.

As Supervisor, I will make sure that City Hall collects and publishes data on the functioning (or dysfunctioning) of our criminal justice system so that we can all hold them accountable for delivering safe neighborhoods. The Police Department, DA’s Office, and Courts also need this data to effectively manage their own organizations and understand what is and isn’t working.

What we THINK we know about auto burglaries

The Police Department likes to blame the auto burglary epidemic on Proposition 47, a state law passed by voters in 2014 that downgraded some nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Incarcerated individuals whose crimes were reclassified could also petition the state to be released on time served, and thousands did so.

But contrary to popular belief, Prop. 47 did not reclassify auto burglaries as misdemeanors and the DA’s Office in San Francisco still prosecutes them as felonies. Several studies conducted since Prop. 47’s implementation had not shown any links to a rise in property and overall crime. Since Prop. 47 passed in November 2014, property crime in California has been relatively flat. While new research from the Public Policy Institute of California ties a slight increase in auto burglary to Prop 47 (a 9 percent increase in the two years following its passage) it’s only in San Francisco and Oakland that we’ve seen the truly dramatic spike in auto burglaries and other property crime over the past years, indicating that a state law is not to blame for our epidemic.

Another possible factor in San Francisco’s property crime wave is another state law, AB 109. Better known as prison realignment, AB 109 came in response to a federal court ruling in 2011 that found California prisons were committing human rights violations due to overcrowding and required limited prison space to be prioritized for the worst criminals.

The problem with blaming AB 109 is that, again, since 2011 when the law took effect auto burglary increases have only been seen in San Francisco and Oakland. Cities like Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego have actually seen a decrease in auto burglaries since realignment.

It’s easy for big bureaucracies to blame everybody but themselves when confronted with complicated problems — especially with a data-free City Hall culture that values press releases over results. City Government needs to stop making excuses and blaming Sacramento for our spike in auto burglaries and property crime. As Supervisor, I will learn from cities like L.A. and San Diego, change the culture of our big criminal justice bureaucracies, and make sure City Hall acts decisively to make our neighborhoods safer.

What we don’t know about auto burglaries and how this prevents an effective response

City Government doesn’t have data on who’s committing auto burglaries in San Francisco, where they come from, and what’s in their criminal record (or if they have one). Without this data, there’s no way City Hall can develop effective strategies to go after the worst offenders or stop this epidemic. And city leaders can’t identify which regional partners they need to work with to solve this problem.

City Government doesn’t have data on how police catch auto burglars. As Supervisor, I will make sure we collect data on what policing strategies are and are not working so we can double down on strategies that are most effective.

There’s a pervasive sense in the Police Department and the District 2 community that San Francisco judges are far more lenient than those in other jurisdictions, and that’s at the root cause of our property crime epidemic. Yet City Hall does not collect data on what the sentence is for each crime or how that compares to similar jurisdictions. As Supervisor, I will publish detailed data on criminal sentencing, broken down by individual judge, so we can hold our elected judges accountable for their decisions.

Better data, more effective criminal justice system, safer neighborhoods

We shouldn’t need to be an attorney or software programmer to understand how our criminal justice system works. There’s no way City Hall can effectively respond to 31,000 auto burglaries if they don’t have a better data-driven understanding of the problem. And there’s no way City Hall can effectively spend more than $1 billion every year on criminal justice if it’s not even tracking what’s working.

As Supervisor, I will stand up to City Hall insiders who don’t want to be held accountable and force these big bureaucracies to publish data on their effectiveness. No More Excuses. Let’s create a performance-driven culture at City Hall. It’s the only way we can truly make our neighborhoods safer.

  1. Police are supposed to keep DataSF up to date. Not only is there a two-week delay with inputting information, the numbers are dramatically different than the Police Department’s monthly reports from CompStat, a management and accountability platform for law enforcement. For instance, DataSF shows 4,417 auto burglary cases reported to police in the first quarter of this year. Yet CompStat shows 6,264. And DataSF shows 56 arrests related to those incidents while police do not otherwise provide that figure anywhere. How is it possible that there’s such a huge discrepancy in these numbers even though they are coming from the same source?
  2. That’s out of more than 31,000 reported to police. So about 1.3% of incidents end up being prosecuted.

UP NEXT: How San Francisco’s shelter system for homeless people compares to other cities.

Over the coming months leading up to the November election, I will be sharing stories and data about auto burglaries, street homelessness, and how we can create an effective city government. I’ll explore tactics used in other cities and whether they helped solve the problem. I’ll present datasets that offer meaningful insights into what can be done differently.

If you are one of those victims, please speak up and tell your story here. If we raise our voices together we will finally be heard. And if we do speak as one, we can put an end to our property crime epidemic together.

NOTE: Statistics on property crime in San Francisco come from San Francisco’s open data portal at DataSF. The Police Department is supposed to update it regularly with the most accurate information, although the numbers skew from CompStat reports.

Paid for by Nick Josefowitz for Supervisor 2018. Financial disclosures are available at