San Francisco’s shoplifting spike is devastating for small businesses

Brazen thieves in San Francisco are undeterred by uniformed security guards, surveillance cameras or customers filming on their cellphones. And corner markets and drug stores are the hardest hit. In one recent incident at a Walgreens, the shoplifter rode in on a bike, packed a trash bag of items, and rode out the front door. All of it was caught on camera. The thief hasn’t been arrested. 

Jalal Haydari, owner of Limoncello Italian Market and Deli, said his store in tony Pacific Heights is targeted day and night. His 32 cameras catch criminals in the act all the time. In one video, a thief is seen breaking through a window and making off with cash and the electronic tablets needed to take delivery orders. 

Another video shows a man loitering around the deli counter. He then takes as many food containers and drinks as he can carry, and walks right out the door without paying. 

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But broken windows are costing him much more than stolen merchandise — almost $23,000 in the past year. 

“My store has been broken into more than 14 times,” Haydari says. “And I have all the police reports, but I have not been notified if anybody got arrested.”

Haydari blames San Francisco’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, and Prop. 47, a 2014 California law that lowered the penalty for non-violent thefts under $950. He says there’s simply no deterrent for petty thieves.

“What [city officials] are doing, they are just promoting this crime. Promoting people to do more, because $950, or $1,000 or $2,000, it doesn’t matter — they get away with it,” Haydari said.

“We’re in a state of chaos and anarchy out here in San Francisco,” says former San Francisco police commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese. “If you ever lived here or spent any time here, you see it every day and you just come to expect it and hope that when it happens, you’re not in the line of fire.”

Usually no one is hurt, but a 72-year-old retailer lost an eye when a would-be thief stabbed him earlier this month.

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Thanks to the Franklin Market’s surveillance video, police were able to identify a suspect and make an arrest. Usually, however, the suspect is long gone by the time police arrive – in many cases, fencing their stolen goods on the street or online.

A steady increase in shoplifting at big chains like Walgreens and CVS prompted a recent hearing before the Board of Supervisors, with some city leaders expressing shock after hearing how bad things are. One executive said thieves would hit several stores in a day, keeping each theft below the $950 threshold, but stealing more than $30,000 of goods overall. City leaders promised to explore the idea of “aggregating” such crimes for prosecution. 

“Like other retailers,” said a statement from Safeway, “we’ve seen a dramatic increase in shoplifting incidents and losses from shoplifting since California sentencing laws changed in 2014 to make all theft below $950 a misdemeanor when it was previously a wobbler, either a felony or a misdemeanor based on prosecutorial discretion. Enterprising thieves have figured out there are few consequences to shoplifting if they keep the value of their crimes below $950.”

Walgreens has closed 17 stores in the past five years specifically because of shoplifting. CVS has shuttered at least two outlets, calling San Francisco “the epicenter of organized retail crime.” 

“If you can walk into a store and steal something, that law is no longer enforced in San Francisco,” said Alioto Veronese. “That which at one time was a felony, has now been reduced to a misdemeanor. And now the misdemeanor is not not being enforced or for that matter, the police won’t even take a police report because it happens so often. It’s those laws have been taken off the books and the criminals know it.”

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The owners of smaller stores that can’t afford extra security say they’re left to fend for themselves, and hope for a day that brings a change in the laws surrounding petty theft, and tougher penalties for shoplifters.

Haydari has a word of caution for retailers thinking of setting up shop in the City by the Bay: “I think before you open a business in San Francisco you should think twice because you’re not protected at all no matter what.”

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