San Francisco Misconceptions and Important Crime Statistics – What Do They Show and Why Should We Care?

By Elina Lingappa

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Amid public debates concerning police funding and differing approaches to criminal justice, particularly for that of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a growing number of individuals have begun to shed light on the role of media-perpetuated misconceptions.

Many people have taken to twitter to discuss how both journalism and social media influences public rhetoric.

Earlier this week, twitter user @mayavada exemplified this when she responded to Michelle Tandler, a fellow San Franciscan resident, who was calling for more attention to San Francisco’s crime problem.

In a long twitter thread, Tandler said that, even as a self -labeled “proud liberal,” she was ashamed of the city’s new progressive policies.

She claimed “The San Francisco government has abdicated on [their] responsibility. It is focused on equity and ‘justice’ at the expense of fulfilling its basic duties… moral grandstanding winning over data, logic, and facts.”

@Mayavada approached the issue in a different light, saying, “This is so uniquely San Francisco. The most arch right people on earth are afraid to identify as anything but “liberal” or “progressive,” even as they argue for a police state, incarcerating the poor, and unironically use terms like “social justice warrior.””

She also rejected Tandler’s claim that “data, logic, and facts” were being abandoned, seeing that instead as code for Tandler’s “ultra-right politics”.

The debate between the two twitter users speaks to a larger controversy around what the “basic duties” of the criminal justice system truly are, and what data and facts are underscored, particularly after the election of San Francisco District Attorney Boudin.

Both of these questions have a dramatic impact on public perceptions of crime.

The Pew Research Center published a 2016 study reflecting the discrepancy between public perceptions of crime and the reality of crime statistics. Their findings demonstrated that Americans believe crime to be far more prevalent than it actually is.

David Menschel, a twitter user, responded to the graph saying it reflected, “a massive failure of American journalism.”

In another example of the media’s failure to portray the correct context surrounding statistics, the San Francisco Chronicle recently published an article claiming, “Car break-ins are up 753 percent in S.F.’s tourist hub.”

However, upon closer examination, the percentage is only reflective of a change between 2020-2021, which puts 2021 cat break-in rates at a similar level of 2019 after the massive decrease in 2020.

Hence, 2020’s drop and the subsequent increase in 2021 is more reflective of the pandemic than any sort of drastic policy change.

Many people took to social media to point out this lack of context, including Carissa Byrne Hessick, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina.

She said, “if you wanted to caption this graph to actually inform readers, this isn’t what you’d say, But If you want to scare people about rising crime rates…”

Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, published an article in 2020 taking a deep dive into this oversight by journalists and media outlets.

He cited several statistics he felt were overlooked in the supposedly data-driven debate.

For example, according to the New York Times, while only 0.7 percent of annual deaths are due to homicide, homicides still account for 23 percent of media coverage deaths, demonstrating the over representation violent crime receives in mainstream media.

Not only are the depictions skewed, says Caulfield, but the claim that crime is increasing is simply false.

A 2019 Pew Research Center study demonstrated that violent crime in the United States has actually decreased drastically in the last couple of decades.

Furthermore, not only has crime decreased overall, but new progressive de-policing strategies do not exacerbate crime.

In fact, studies cited by Caulfield showed “no evidence of an effect of arrest rates on homicide rates.”

The question remains, if this sort of journalism is so misleading, why does it continue to happen?

According to Caulfield, negative and fear-inducing headlines do significantly better than positive ones.

Effectively, these news stories are more marketable: “If it bleeds, it leads” is the old newspaper axion.

The impact, as Caulfield says, is, “people believe crime is getting worse. Indeed, the gulf between the reality of crime and public perceptions is staggering.”

This misconception surrounding crime statistics translates into conflicting views on the role and effectiveness of the criminal justice system in its entirety.

For those like Tandler, who perceive crime as rising, progressive policies to decriminalize many spheres and defund law enforcement undermine the tough-on-crime role the system should be filling.

However, others, such as Caulfield, who point out crime statistics without context work primarily to enforce fear mongering.

Thus, the role of the criminal justice system should fill an opposing role to the tough-on-crime model.

The rhetoric which underscores “rising” crime, according to Takenya Nixon Brail of Teen Vogue, is not only misleading in regard to the criminal justice system, but actually exacerbates many of the flaws in the system.

Brail wrote an in-depth op-ed for Teen Vogue centered around crime in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois, particularly a drive-by shooting which resulted in the death of a young girl.

In the article, she expands on how media-driven fear mongering actually worsens crime and harms many marginalized communities nationwide.

“For the past half century, politicians and police, enabled by all-too-willing media, have weaponized tragedies, cherry-picked statistics, and become fear mongers over crime,” she wrote.

“They’ve done so to convince people that, somehow, it’s a good idea to support the same costly, wasteful, and yes, violent strategies of policing and criminalization that continue to create conditions that allow [for similar tragedies],” she continued.

According to testimonies of Brail, Caulfield, and countless others, the data, logic, and facts actually support a future defined by divesting in the carceral and policing systems.

However, narratives driven by large media outlets seem to perpetuate the opposing rhetoric, which has fed wide-spread fears around crime nationwide, and particularly in the San Francisco area.

“This is a historic moment with the potential of leading to real and meaningful change,” Caulfield wrote. “Now, more than ever, we need to stick to the facts.”

Brail echoed his sentiment, calling for a critical look into the future of the criminal justice system.

“How do we get to a more rational place that is better for all of us? We need to refuse to continue being duped by the fearmongers, by a self-interested police force, and the leaders beholden to them,”

She adds, “Most importantly, we need to have patience for change.”

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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  1. Alan Miller

    I agree about the 750% number – totally manipulated statistics.  However, even if SF murder and property crimes aren’t way up, which I don’t believe, SF is was cesspool even before Covid-19.  I’ve had several friends get their cars broken into in SF, including myself.  Riding BART to bike in SF often, I learned of the racket where you can make roughly $80 by grabbing a cell phone on BART, getting off at the Civic Center station, and selling it in the giant tent City there just off Market.  It’s well known, and it thrives.  Needless to say, I keep my attention up and my belongings firmly affixed around Civic Center and other problem stations.

    Whatever counter-argument you make, you’ve already lost.  Perception is reality, and fear perpetuates perception.  Even if your arguments are correct on trends, SF needs to be cleaned up and bull-dozed into the sea.  What an armpit that City has become.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Remember that these are “only” property crimes (unless someone gets in the way, of course), so I say that your friends should just accept it.  They can replace that stuff, and/or have insurance (that won’t go up, as a result).  Your friends are probably wealthy enough to do so, without it even impacting them. I’m guessing that they might even be “privileged”.

      Same thing with the businesses that are leaving.

      And if it’s a higher-end store, well – they’re wealthy enough to withstand it for the privilege of being in San Francisco:

      And for those “throwing in the towel”, well – they’re probably too “fragile” to be there, anyway. And certainly not enlightened.

      And if there happens to be “disproportionate participation” in such crimes in the first place, it would be racist to enforce the law (or support it). And you certainly don’t want that.

      So, I say – let it go, and that they should be thankful that they had stuff worth stealing in the first place.  🙂

      (Sarcasm intended throughout this comment.)

      1. Carlos Garcia

        There are multiple issues here.

        1. Is crime increasing – answer seems to be: some crimes

        2. How much are they increasing by – answer seems to be: the crime rate is way below what it was even a decade ago.

        3. What is causing that increase – answer seems to be unclear but given the across the board nature of that increase, it is hard to pin it on local policies.

        It is on point 1 and 3 that the battle lines seem to be.

      2. Keith Olsen

        Ron, very good “The Onion” type sarcasm.  I’d like to add that anything under $950 is probably not even being reported as it is no longer considered grand theft.  So what’s an $800 loss or so to a privileged SF resident?  Consider it a donation to the cause.

      3. Alan Miller

        After all the Targets and Walgreens close, these neighborhoods will be considered “retail deserts” and they’ll blame the stores for abandoning the neighborhoods, and the government and society for allowing it to happen.

    1. Carlos Garcia

      But the decision to close stores actually predates Boudin…

      For instance, this article from early 2020, shows that the decision to close Walgreens was made in 2019 before Boudin was even election –


      1. Keith Olsen

        Ummm, did you read the article?  Target is closing its stores early, that decision was just made due to the current rise in shoplifting and their concern for their customer safety.  This is under Boudin’s regime.  But try and deflect if you must.

        1. David Greenwald

          Keith – I saw the news last week. I don’t buy it. In fact, I suggest you read our article today rather than immediately googling things.

          The data does not support the notion here is increased theft in San Francisco.

          In fact, the opposite is true. In 2018, from June 13 to July 4 – there were 3783 reported thefts in San Francisco. This year, it was 2746. So why is it all of a sudden a crisis?

          And if you google Target and store closures/ reduced hours, you find examples of it all over the country.

          So what’s happening? Target is struggling to compete against Amazon. And instead of fessing up to their business struggles, they are making excuses.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Keith:  But try and deflect if you must.

          Your wish is David’s command:

          David: Target is struggling to compete against Amazon. And instead of fessing up to their business struggles, they are making excuses.


          Anarchy is not a conducive business model, nor is it a desirable environment in which to live.

        3. Keith Olsen

          So what’s happening? Target is struggling to compete against Amazon. And instead of fessing up to their business struggles, they are making excuses.

          Really?  I think you had better stick to politics and social justice because business doesn’t seem to be one of your strengths.  Target stock (TGT) hit an all time high today and earnings have been great.

          Target earnings top estimates as sales rise 21%, boosted by a surge of post-holiday shoppers

          1. David Greenwald

            So if you buy the retail theft argument, how do you explain the fact that retail theft is actually significantly down over the last four years? You’ve dodged this point three times now.

        4. Keith Olsen

          You just said Target was cutting hours and suffering because of Amazon which appears to be totally false.  How do you know Target’s actual San Francisco theft numbers are down and not a problem and how do you know that Target isn’t concerned about the safety of their San Francisco customers?

          1. David Greenwald

            And you said they are cutting them because of theft. I cited the stats from the SFPD’s dashboard. You cited…

        5. Keith Olsen

          Even more shocking is the fact that many shoplifters then sell their stolen goods on the street – often not far from the store where they stole them.
          For example, the Walgreens at 30th St and Mission St reported 16 shoplifting incidents from November 2020 to February 2021. Just six blocks away, at 24th St and Mission, a city official said he saw Walgreens’ products being sold at an outdoor market.
          “Half of Walgreens was on the sidewalk. I’m not kidding,” Ahsha Safaí, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told The New York Times. “I was blown away. I’ve never seen anything like it in this city.”

        6. Keith Olsen

          BTW if you read this article, you will see why Target did very last year and why it probably won’t this year

          Yeah, things look dismal.  That’s why Target’s stock hit an all time high today in a big down market.  You really seem to have a hard time admitting when you’re wrong.

  2. Keith Olsen

    This may be the quote of the year, from a Target shopper:

    “But, on the other hand, I think there should be more affordable food, and there should be clothing for people who need to shoplift. Because a lot of people are doing it out of necessity.”

  3. Moderator

    Just a reminder: there is a limitation on comments per article—five comments per article per commenter per day. 

    Keith O: no more on this thread tonight or tomorrow.

  4. David Greenwald

    This completely illustrates the problem:

    A 57% majority of Americans say there is more violent crime now in the U.S. compared to 30 years ago; just 12% say less. (11% say the same, and 20% aren’t sure.) @USATODAY @ipsosus Poll.

    Hint: it’s not even close to being right, but the media is driving this narrative right now.

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