This Tiny Device Could Solve SF’s Auto Burglary Epidemic

Why the San Francisco Police Department should use bait to catch auto burglars and end our property crime epidemic

San Francisco’s Chief of Police recently insisted that the best way to curb auto burglaries was to double down on public awareness campaigns and traditional policing tactics. Sadly that’s more of the same coming at a time when thousands of other law enforcement agencies are deploying modern technology to fight property crime with remarkable results. To find out how this is being done, I went directly to the source: America’s first police department to use Electronic Stake Out devices.

In 2011, the Redlands (Calif.) Police Department, like many agencies nationwide at the time, was experiencing budget cuts and watching its police force shrink. The city also had an uptick in property crime, specifically auto burglaries in the parking lot of a local gym. No longer able to expend hours at a time on staffed sting operations, Redlands PD searched for a new approach.

Enter 3SI Security, the world’s largest manufacturers of law enforcement technology. One of the company’s signature products, the patented Electronic Stake Out device, or ESO, debuted in 2006 but by 2011 had mostly been used by financial institutions to safeguard assets. Redlands, with a population of about 71,000 residents, decided to see if they could pilot this new technology to help keep their community safe.

ESOs are inconspicuous battery-operated devices that use three location-based technologies (GPS, cellular, and radio frequency) in one transmitter that is easy to hide in commonly stolen items like laptops, bags, or bicycles.

The moment something containing one of the devices moves, an alert is sent out to a dispatch center and also to officers’ phones via text so they can easily monitor where the device travels. That’s 24/7 surveillance with no human intervention. This allows for a safer and more reliable pursuit of a suspect because police are essentially invisible until they go in for the arrest.

For its first ESO operation, Redlands PD set up a bait car that contained a laptop that had been outfitted with the device. They parked it in the gym lot that had seen an increase in auto burglaries, then left. It took a mere 45 minutes for the device to move and an arrest to be made, and now Redlands PD uses ESOs for everything from pharmacy stings to a residential program for people away on vacation. A select number of officers receive the text message alerts, and the dispatch center has a map showing the location of all active ESOs.

In fact, more than 7,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide use ESOs, with many of those instituting full programs like the one at Redlands PD. In the Bay Area alone, 30 agencies have full programs in place. The San Francisco Police Department, however, is not one of them.

SFPD has used ESOs for specific operations but has not implemented a full program, according to 3SI. Representatives from the company met with SFPD brass 4 years ago about starting a program, but the effort never gained traction. (I’m waiting for SFPD to fulfill a public records request regarding their use of ESOs or similar technology to better understand why SFPD has failed to deploy this best-practice technology.)

Redlands PD reported immediate incident reductions with the ESO program. In the first year alone, auto burglaries declined by 22% and essentially stayed at that level for the next 3 years before again declining 19% for a total 5-year decrease of 36%. During that same time period, San Francisco auto burglaries reported to police increased by about 51%, from 10,582 in 2011 to 21,545 in 2014.

ESOs did not eliminate auto burglaries for Redlands PD, but they were never supposed to. What they did do is help manage and reduce the problem while also bringing a renewed sense of safety to the community and freeing up badly needed police resources for other priorities. And while deploying ESOs increased Redlands PD’s arrest rate for property crimes, they also helped make prosecutions stronger because police could catch suspects in the act with stolen goods in their possession.

In law enforcement, there’s something called the 80–20 rule. It states that 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of offenders, more colloquially referred to as “career criminals.” In Redlands, this held true when the first 86 arrests under the ESO program were analyzed. Of those 86, 79 were adults. Of those 79, 77 had criminal histories — 1,262 arrests in total. And of those 77, 22 were on supervised release, 19 had active warrants, and 12 possessed stolen property from previous thefts. Since 2011, Redlands PD has used ESOs to help make 293 arrests in connection with many different crimes. Only 5 of those suspects were NOT career criminals.

So how much do ESOs cost? The devices are $450 apiece plus $18 per month for cellular service. Redlands PD estimated that this level of 24/7 surveillance cost $1.79 a day in the first year and $0.59 per day thereafter. Compare that to something like new security cameras, which can be effective if installed in crime hot spots but cost millions of dollars. Or compare that to San Francisco’s criminal justice budget, which stretches past $1.5 billion annually.

San Francisco is at the point of no return when it comes to auto burglaries. I hear from residents all the time about how unsafe they feel in their neighborhoods, and how they are instructed by police to just toss their case into the abyss of SFPD’s online reporting system. The Police Department has failed to deploy modern technology to keep up with the ever-more sophisticated professional criminals, and as a result has an abysmal record at catching and arresting auto burglars and those committing other property crimes. For the 30,000-plus auto burglaries reported to police last year, less than 2% resulted in an arrest. In District 2, the numbers were even more stark: 3,871 reports and only 25 arrests.

San Francisco Police should be deploying technology like ESO devices to lay the stings that will catch serial auto burglars, package thieves, and shoplifters. As your Supervisor, I will make sure they do. We live in the most technologically sophisticated city in the world, and there’s no reason we should not have a police force that uses the best technology out there to keep us and our neighborhoods safe.

UP NEXT: Let’s understand homelessness in San Francisco before we try to tackle it.

Over the coming months leading up to the November election, I will be sharing stories and data about auto burglaries and property crime. 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 by our city government. And I’ll share the stories of the victims of property crime and the neighborhoods that have been most afflicted.

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