Tourists snap photos of cable cars descending Powell Street with loosely gripped cameras, shoppers tear through racks of designer clothes hanging unattended in mall shops, and office workers pour out of the BART station with their eyes glued to their smartphones.
The stretch of Market Street between Fourth and Fifth streets is one of the busiest parts of San Francisco. It also generates more crime reports than any other single block in the city. Excluding non-criminal and traffic-related incidents, nearly 1,400 police reports were filed from the 800 block of Market Street and its bordering intersections last year, according to police records, or an average of nearly four per day. (The blocks encompassing the Hall of Justice and San Francisco General Hospital were not counted, since many crimes reported at those locations actually took place elsewhere.)
The high volume of incidents doesn’t mean the 800 block of Market is particularly dangerous. More than half of the reports were for theft or larceny last year, although there were also 100 reported assaults, 80 robberies and nine reports of sexual assault. The downtown block also did not record an outsize number of arrests; 357 people were booked as of late December, or about one per day.
But responding to the calls, investigating whether a crime was committed and writing the reports still takes time — San Francisco Police Department spokesman Carlos Manfredi estimates about an hour for each incident — which pulls officers away from combatting more serious issues, especially in the Tenderloin, which is part of the same police district.
“Theft is a simple incident to handle, but I would much rather use my resources dealing with the drugs and violence; I’d much rather be dealing with Leavenworth, Turk and Taylor, Hyde Street,” said Teresa Ewins, captain of the Tenderloin Police District, which oversees the block. “But the way the law is at this point, we have to handle the calls.”
Strain on resources
Westfield San Francisco Centre and its surrounding area alone accounted for 23 percent of all calls for service made to the Southern Police District between 2011 and 2013, forcing the police to assign two people just to the shopping center, according to past reporting by SF Weekly. In essence, officers became mall cops.
Such frequent calls for service stemming from the busy stretch of Market Street aren’t entirely surprising. The nine-story Westfield center is a dense urban mall packed with shoppers — and sometimes shoplifters. The cable car turnaround attracts tourists, and the Powell Street Muni Metro and BART Station draws commuters, creating a chaotic confluence that’s ripe for crime.
“It’s a central hub, so many people go in and out of that one block,” Manfredi said. “It creates the perfect storm of nefarious activities because it’s so congested.”
As a transit hub, Market Street presents a challenge for policing.
“The location makes it easier to commit crimes,” UC Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg said. “You can get there on public transit easily; you can get away pretty quickly; the large crowds permit a level of anonymity where property crimes flourish; and the victims are preoccupied, they’re shopping, they’re not worried about protecting their valuables.”
Last summer, after years of data analysis and community meetings, the 800 block of Market Street stopped being a drain on the Southern Police District. The length of Market Street running from Third Street to Van Ness was folded into the Tenderloin Police District’s jurisdiction. The decision ignited heated debates, as some worried the bustling stretch of the city — particularly the block encompassing Westfield — would pull police away from one of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.
“We knew Westfield would draw energy from the Tenderloin,” said Pratibha Tekkey, director of community organizing at the Central City SRO Collaborative, which initially opposed the boundary changes before coming to support them. “We were hoping (the new boundaries) would bring more resources in.”
Tekkey said she’s still waiting for those resources. Despite its expanded jurisdiction, the Tenderloin Police District is understaffed, much like police districts in the rest of the city. It did receive an additional 34 officers in the summer, though, bringing the total count to 103.
More than a dozen are former Southern District officers who are, and had been, specifically assigned to Mid-Market, according to the police commission.
“The staffing piece is important,” said Suzy Loftus, president of the San Francisco Police Commission, referring to the discussions on redistricting. “What we settled on was, as long as there were additional resources (in the Tenderloin) to go along with the additional calls for service, it would be fine.”
Nearby rough blocks
Along with the 1,400 incidents on the 800 block of Market Street last year, another 975 were reported between Fifth and Seventh streets. About a third were for larceny and theft — a crime that has become more common.
Citywide, the number of larceny and theft offenses jumped 13 percent from November 2014 to November 2015, from about 33,790 incidents to 38,145, according to Police Department Compstat data. Reports of shoplifting increased about 25 percent over the time frame, from 1,870 incidents to 2,320. On Market between Fourth and Fifth streets, the number of shoplifting reports went from 231 in 2014 to more than 400 in 2015.
The explanation for the uptick differs depending on whom you ask. Some cite the growing disparity between rich and poor in the city, or prison realignment, or the natural ebb and flow of crime. San Francisco police attribute the uptick, in part, to Proposition 47. Passed in November 2014, the bill downgraded certain drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
Now, those caught stealing items worth less than $951 don’t have to worry as much about a stiff prison term and are often just cited and released.
Such toned-down procedures are less time-intensive for officers in the short term (they don’t have to book and arrest as many people), but they could be a drain in the long term.
“I have heard that people aren’t afraid of being prosecuted,” Ewins said. “It’s unfortunate that we have to see this type of increase, but we need to examine why it is occurring. ... People are stealing, so we need to go and we need to investigate.”