San Francisco Shoplifting: Prelude

You may have heard that there’s a shoplifting surge hitting San Francisco. Criminals are running wild, and thanks to bleeding-heart progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin, there are no consequences for any of it.

Consider the Wall Street Journal headline “San Francisco Has Become a Shoplifter’s Paradise”, or the New York Times article on “San Francisco’s Shoplifting Surge” which opens “The mundane crime of shoplifting has spun out of control”. Or for more local coverage, you might prefer SF Mayor London Breed’s pronouncement:

[we will] take the steps to become more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bullshit that is destroying our cities.

If mainstream media isn’t your thing, perhaps you’d prefer various ingroup thought leaders weighing in. Here’s Tyler Cowen uncritically quoting a CVS exec who calls San Francisco “​​one of the epicenters of organized retail crime”. And Marginal Revolution co-blogger Alex Tabarrok on the “rampant, brazen shoplifting in San Francisco.” Or legendary tech titans David Sacks, Chamath Palihapitiya and Jason Calacanis on the “pure propaganda” “preposterous claim” that crime could possibly be anything but skyrocketing.

The only problem is, evidence for the surge is scant, and largely anecdotal.

Sure there are viral videos, but in a city of 900,000, with tens of thousands of thefts reported each year in normal times, it’s easy to find dozens of instances that establish a narrative, while still proving nothing. As Diaconis and Mosteller put it, “With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.” Or as Gwern puts it more brutally:

The paradox of news is that by design, the more you read, the less you might know, by accumulating an ever greater arsenal of facts and examples which are (usually) true, but whose interpretation bears ever less resemblance to reality. This was always true, but online/​mainstream media and social networking, which turn over much more rapidly, seem to have become increasingly misleading as to the state of the world by focusing on ‘stories’ and ‘events’ rather than trends and averages. [1]

Normally, this kind of discussion is fairly straightforward. Some people on the internet make misleading claims, some other people post charts demolishing their claims, and the matter is settled. In the case of San Francisco shoplifting, we don’t have that luxury. It’s not just that the anecdotes are misleading, it’s that even the data bears little resemblance to reality.

If you stick though this series, you’ll get to hear:

  • Why the case for a shoplifting surge looks so strong, but still falls flat.
  • How to figure out what’s real when you see conflicting data.
  • How we ended up in this weird and wacky world where libertarian VCs somehow end up agreeing with liberals like Nancy Pelosi and London Breed, and where the stance they all agree on is that we should be tough on a crime, a stance historically antithetical to both parties’ platforms.

At this point, you should have just about every epistemic red flag in your arsenal raised, and be prepared to read with immense skepticism. My own view here might not be correct, and it’s certainly not the entire story, but it is very likely better researched than anything else you’re reading on the topic.

Part 1: Failed Reforms; Skyrocketing Crime

On January 8th, 2020, Chesa Boudin was sworn in as the new District Attorney for San Francisco. Having campaigned on a platform of progressive reforms including decareration, refusal to assist ICE, and what can be generously described as a “long left-wing lineage”, he was the darling child of the radical-left, and the “soft on crime” boogeyman for the right.

Despite a variety of ambitious initiatives carried out by his office, crime in the city seemed to be on the rise. As one video after another went viral, the city’s merchandise seemed to be anyone’s for the taking. Sure enough, SFPD crime data confirms 23% increase from 2020 to 2021:

Looking at shoplifting in particular and zooming into a monthly view, we see the recent surge made evident with reported cases more than doubling from August to November:

Taking yet another angle and looking at the impact on stores, we can hear testimony after testimony about how uniquely bad San Francisco is. According to one Target spokesperson:

For the last few months, we’ve been experiencing a significant and alarming rise in theft and security incidents at our San Francisco stores, similar to reports from other retailers in the area.

And it’s not just empty claims. Across several major retail chains, stores have announced closures in San Francisco, pointing to elevated levels of shoplifting in the city. CVS is closing six of its stores across the city, and Walgreens announced that they’ll be closing five as well. As an article in The Guardian opens:

Walgreens announced the impending closure of five of its San Francisco stores. “Retail theft” had risen to unsustainable levels despite increased investment in security, the chain said. It was time to give up.

Bolstering all of the data on shoplifting and closures are a series of more politically charged arguments against the city’s liberal stance on policing. The aforementioned Wall Street Journal article explains that “thefts under $950 are effectively decriminalized”, removing the capacity for law enforcement to act as a deterrent against theft.

Looking at Chesa’s record more closely, we see that even of the shoplifting cases that get reported, relatively few are prosecuted. The Charging Rate–defined as the percent of cases brought to the DA’s office that result in charges–serves as a rough indicator of the DA’s “toughness” on crime. And for Chesa, the charges for theft have been considerably lighter than in past years. From the SF Chronicle’s analysis:

Given the decriminalization of theft, and further drop in charging rates, it’s no wonder cases are skyrocketing. Even further, Chesa’s critics argue that since store owners and employees know shoplifting is unlikely to result in consequences, they don’t even bother reporting most cases, meaning that we’re likely underestimating the rise in crime.

Overall, the case against Chesa, against San Francisco, and against left-leaning police reform more generally, looks pretty damning. This isn’t a one off incident. It’s not a series of random anecdotes. It’s a change in trends and averages backed by a solid explanatory theory and mounds of empirical evidence from the DA’s own office.

So that’s it. Case closed, right?


See you next time for part 2.

[1] See also Scott’s Chinese Robber Fallacy:

Most people think of stereotyping as “Here’s one example I heard of where the out-group does something bad,” and then you correct it with “But we can’t generalize about an entire group just from one example!” It’s less obvious that you may be able to provide literally one million examples of your false stereotype and still have it be a false stereotype. If you spend twelve hours a day on the task and can describe one crime every ten seconds, you can spend four months doing nothing but providing examples of burglarous Chinese – and still have absolutely no point.

If we’re really concerned about media bias, we need to think about Chinese Robber Fallacy as one of the media’s strongest weapons. There are lots of people – 300 million in America alone. No matter what point the media wants to make, there will be hundreds of salient examples. No matter how low-probability their outcome of interest is, they will never have to stop covering it if they don’t want to.