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SF DA Wants Auto Break-In Task Force

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Glenn Santarosa, front, and Johnny Friedman from San Francisco Public Works, sweep up broken glass from a car window on Church Street near Market Sunday, February 25
Glenn Santarosa, front, and Johnny Friedman from San Francisco Public Works, sweep up broken glass from a car window on Church Street near Market Sunday, February 25  (Source:Rick Gerharter)

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón plans to ask the city's Board of Supervisors and mayor for about $1 million to establish a task force to address automobile break-ins.

The team would include prosecutors and analysts "solely dedicated to auto burglary investigations and prosecutions," Gascón said at a February 21 news conference.

More than 30,000 auto burglaries were reported in the city last year, "resulting in just 481 arrests, and 391 prosecutions," according to Gascón's office. Citing civil grand jury data, the DA's office said, "criminal street gangs are behind 70 to 80 percent of all auto burglary incidents in San Francisco."

Gascón's hoping the task force can identify and prosecute the people who are behind many of the cases.

"We know that a small percentage of individuals are responsible for the vast majority of auto burglaries in San Francisco," he said in a statement. "I created a Crime Strategies Unit within the District Attorney's office almost three years ago to go after the individuals who were responsible for an outsized portion of crime in our community, and it has successfully netted hundreds of major crime drivers in San Francisco and throughout the region. We're going to apply this same analytical and data intensive approach to identify the individuals that are responsible for the wave of auto burglaries."

The task force would focus on serial offenders involved in open cases, along with probation violations, reviews of jail calls, identifying suspect vehicles, and other areas.

In response to a Bay Area Reporter email, gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who chairs the supervisors' Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, said he doesn't support Gascón's proposal.

"If we need additional investigative resources, that funding should go to the police department," said Sheehy in an email. "If he can't work with SFPD, he should figure out how to do so. If the district attorney does not have enough legal staff to do the job and prosecute auto burglaries, he should demonstrate why current staffing is incapable of doing so. After 24,000 auto burglaries this year and 17,000 last year, it sure has taken him awhile to assess his own deficits in addressing this issue."

Mayor Mark Farrell said he has directed Police Chief William Scott to provide information on the issue.

"Residents and tourists are at a breaking point of frustration with car break-ins," Farrell said in a statement to the B.A.R. "Parking your car in San Francisco should not be a game of roulette, and that is exactly why I asked Chief Scott to provide a police department staffing analysis to fix the issue. At this point we need action, not another press conference asking for a $1 million task force."

Along with proposing the task force, Gascón also recently established an auto burglary tip line.

He said the resource "is not a replacement for a police report," and people should still use 911 to report emergencies, but the tip line is for people who witness break-ins to provide information.

The line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and people can make reports in multiple languages.

The phone number for the tip line is (415) 553-7337.

Tips may also be provided at http://sfdistrictattorney.org/auto-burglary-tip-line or emailed to SFDA.AutoBurgTips@sfgov.org.

Finally, Gascón's office is republishing its private camera registry (http://sfdistrictattorney.org/register-your-camera) so people can register their security devices in order to aid in law enforcement investigations.

State proposal
Gascón is also involved in work to address auto break-ins at the state level.

In January, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced Senate Bill 916, which Gascón is sponsoring. It's meant "to close a loophole that hampers prosecutions for automobile break-ins" by allowing prosecutors "to prove that a defendant committed an auto burglary by showing that he or she broke a car window to get into the car," according to Wiener's office. Currently, judges sometimes require prosecutors to show that car doors weren't locked in auto burglary cases.

Wiener's office said that, in December, the SFPD reported that larceny theft from vehicles had increased by 26 percent over the past year.

"The explosion in auto break-ins we're experiencing is unacceptable, and we need to ensure our police and district attorneys have all the tools they need to address it," said Wiener in a news release. "When residents or visitors park their cars on the streets, they should have confidence that the car and its contents will be there when they return. Damaged cars and stolen property can significantly harm people, and shattered glass all over the ground undermines safe neighborhoods. SB 916 closes a loophole in the Penal Code that can lead to cases being dropped or charges reduced even when the evidence of burglary are clear."

Gascón stated, "The community's skyrocketing number of auto break-ins are a stain on our quality of life. ... This legislation will close a loophole that has allowed some suspects to escape consequences, and there are additional efforts underway that will give San Franciscans needed relief from the frustration and broken glass that has defined the city's epidemic of auto break-ins."

SB 916 is co-authored by Assemblymen David Chiu and Phil Ting, both Democrats of San Francisco.

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