From Smash-and-Grabs to a Safer City: San Francisco’s Fight Against Car Burglaries

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Need to Know from SafeWise
  • Motor vehicle theft has increased 5.8% over the past year in San Francisco, while other types of crime have seen a decline.
  • From September to November 2023, the San Francisco Police Department saw a significant drop in smash-and-grab incidents, reducing from 6,703 to 3,399 during the same timeframe.
  • Other cities like Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Washington, D.C., and Richland, Washington, are also adopting inventive measures, such as personal tracking devices, drone surveillance, and license plate readers to combat car theft.
Car Thief Using a Screwdriver to Break into a Car stock photo

Image: vm, iStock

Property crimes are on the rise across the country, and San Francisco is one of the hardest-hit areas. Motor vehicle theft has increased 5.8% over the past year, while other types of crime have seen a decline.

But there’s a bright spot in those car theft numbers. After a November 2023 spike, law enforcement officials noticed that car burglary rates dropped in the city. What caused the rapid turnaround? Can other cities take the same measures?

The numbers

As Thanksgiving weekend approached, San Francisco’s police department saw car theft rates equal to the previous year. But then the department got a fresh round of numbers, and the news was good.

Police were particularly interested in the number of smash-and-grab incidents, which had been skyrocketing throughout 2022 and 2023. From September to November 2023, the department saw 3,399 smash-and-grab incidents, which may sound high. But when you compare it to a year ago, when incidents were 6,703 during the same timeframe, you can see the severe drop.

So, what led to the sudden shift? The San Francisco Police Department believes it has to do with a variety of crackdown efforts.

San Francisco’s three-pronged approach

While there’s no guarantee the drop in numbers is directly tied to police action, it’s definitely notable. Here are three significant ways the San Francisco Police Department is battling car theft.

1. Targeted surveillance

San Francisco law enforcement officials are aware that a large portion of car burglaries is committed by a small segment of the population. Those prolific burglars often operate through crime networks, stealing goods and reselling them.

Authorities believe the key to reducing crime is tracking down these repeat offenders. Officers can reduce burglaries on a larger scale by getting them off the streets.

  • Increased police presence: Police have stepped up patrols in theft-prone areas, watching for illegal activity.
  • Bait cars: Bait cars, equipped with GPS and cameras, are being stationed in high-theft areas.
  • Spike strips: San Francisco police are employing spike strips to stop getaway cars.
  • Glitter bombing: Viral videos have shown San Francisco police rigging suitcases or backpacks with glitter inside bait cars. The trigger is activated when the thief takes off with the vehicle, filling the car with glitter and an offensive odor.

2. Anti-burglary messaging

San Francisco Police have also used the media to get the word out about car theft crackdowns. In August 2023, the department held a press conference where a spokesperson detailed the measures the department is taking to tackle the issue.

Although break-in rates dropped soon after, the department put its money where its mouth was. More funds were shifted to fighting smash-and-grabs, which backed up the department’s messaging. The department also has helpful tips on its website to help consumers protect their belongings.

3. Prosecuting the perpetrators

Getting auto thieves off the streets means working in partnership with the courts. That’s happening in San Francisco, where prosecutors are filing detention motions that ensure they stay in jail. If the most prolific burglars in San Francisco end up behind bars, the numbers can drop drastically.

But one thing still slows down those arrests. Prosecutors must prove the car was locked to classify the theft as a break-in. A new bill seeks to remove that hurdle. The bill would expand the definition of auto theft to include entering a vehicle with the intent of committing burglary.

What other cities are doing

San Francisco isn’t the only city getting inventive to battle auto theft. Bait vehicles have been used in Minneapolis, Albuquerque, and other major cities. But here are a few different ways municipalities are fighting increases in car burglaries.

Tracking devices

Personal tracking devices like Apple AirTags are a great way to keep up with your wallet and car keys, but Washington, D.C., police see another use for them. In August, the mayor launched a program to distribute free AirTags to vehicle owners in frequently targeted neighborhoods. This move followed an announcement from New York City’s mayor, asking residents to place AirTags in their vehicles.

Drone surveillance

Drones can be an excellent tool for tracking down a recently stolen vehicle, but they also can help monitor high-theft areas. The Beverly Hills Police Department uses a surveillance drone named “Hawkeye” to patrol heavily hit areas. San Francisco is eyeing the technology, too, but voter support is necessary to put a program in place.

License plate readers

Once a car has been stolen, the license plate is often the key to tracking it down. But police officers can’t check every license plate. Richland, Washington, has come up with an answer to that. Last February, the city’s police department installed Automatic License Plate Readers in patrol vehicles. The technology has proved valuable for more than recovering stolen cars. License plate readers can also be used to track down missing people.

When it comes to battling car break-ins, police departments are often limited to what the budget can handle. But with increased efforts to catch criminals, San Francisco and other cities can gradually get a handle on things. Meanwhile, vehicle owners need to take measures to safeguard their vehicles, including parking in well-lit areas, using vehicle GPS trackers, and installing home security cameras.

Stephanie Faris
Written by
Stephanie Faris

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