SF DA blasts 'culture of tolerance' at retail theft town hall

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday February 6, 2024
Share this Post:
Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, standing, led a town hall discussion about retail theft at Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez Street, on February 5. Mandelman was joined by, from left, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, San Francisco Police Department Captain Thomas Harvey of Mission Station, SFPD Lieutenant Scott Ryan, and Ryan Allain, the director of government affairs for the California Retailers Association. Photo: John Ferrannini
Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, standing, led a town hall discussion about retail theft at Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez Street, on February 5. Mandelman was joined by, from left, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, San Francisco Police Department Captain Thomas Harvey of Mission Station, SFPD Lieutenant Scott Ryan, and Ryan Allain, the director of government affairs for the California Retailers Association. Photo: John Ferrannini

The consensus of a town hall discussion on mass retail thefts by San Francisco community leaders Monday was that laws and culture need to change to stem the tide.

"There were legislative things that contributed to this but there was also, I think, a culture that contributed to this, which was a culture of tolerance," said San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, who is up for reelection this fall and faces a challenge from Ryan Khojasteh, now an Alameda County prosecutor whom Jenkins fired from the DA's office.

Jenkins, a straight ally, was one of five people on a panel February 5 at the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez Street. She was joined by gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman; San Francisco Police Department Captain Thomas Harvey, who oversees Mission Station; SFPD Lieutenant Scott Ryan; and Ryan Allain, the director of government affairs for the California Retailers Association.

Mandelman had announced the town hall in mid-January after a number of mass retail thefts in District 8. The issue gained renewed attention last week after a local TV news channel broadcast video showing half a dozen people wearing masks and filling bags with merchandise from the Walgreens at 498 Castro Street before fleeing the scene.

Jenkins zeroed in on Proposition 47, dubbed by its supporters the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which was passed by California voters in the November 2014 election by a margin of 60% to 40%. It recategorized certain nonviolent offenses, including some property crimes, as misdemeanors.

"I think we started to erode the tools that law enforcement had, as a state, to be able to prosecute theft crimes effectively," Jenkins said. "One of the mechanisms that caused that was Prop 47, and we have to acknowledge that, and I'm not saying that I disagree with the spirit of what Prop 47 was intending to do ... but what it did was, when it raised the threshold [for felony larceny] from $450 to $950, it created far more misdemeanor crimes at the same time the Legislature was watering down the penalties for misdemeanor crimes."

As an example, Assembly Bill 3234, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020, granted judges the power to allow for diversion in almost all misdemeanor cases.

Allain said that while retail theft may seem a unique San Francisco issue, it is a problem statewide.

"It's more acute in San Francisco sometimes," said Allain, who came to the event from Sacramento. "It hits the media more, but every city is doing this. The I-80 corridor they hit up and down. I can assure you it's statewide."

The freeway corridor from San Francisco to Sacramento includes exits to a number of cities and shopping centers.

Jenkins said that changing at least some of Prop 47 should be on the table. Changes would have to go before the voters again.

Mandelman said that in the past he opposed efforts to repeal Prop 47, but would be open to looking at making some changes.

"A couple of Prop 47 reforms have been submitted by Democrats in the Legislature, which is a change," he said.

Allain, who lobbies the Legislature on behalf of his organization, which represents retailers statewide, said that "it is interesting."

"It seems like a lot of things are changing, but we are trying to find out what we want that change to be," he said, crediting California Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Salinas) for making retail theft a "priority."

Rivas announced last year the formation of the Assembly Select Committee on Retail Theft, which includes San Francisco Assemblymember Matt Haney (D).

Haney did not return a request for comment.

Allain said that the committee will be visiting San Francisco "later this month or March."

"From the California Retailers Association's perspective, I would agree with Brooke Jenkins that Prop 47 — we need to look at that," Allain said. "There's some willingness there that hasn't been in the past to examine that through a conscious lens."

Allain said that the association isn't interested in lowering the threshold for felony larceny — other states, such as Texas, have thresholds twice as high as in the Golden State — but is interested in bringing back the charge of petty theft with a prior, which was eliminated under Prop 47.

Prior to Prop 47, three prior convictions for theft could result in a felony sentence of 16 months to three years for a conviction on a new charge. There are some exceptions in the law as is, such as if the prior conviction was a sex offense or elder abuse.

DA critiques 'culture of tolerance'

Jenkins said that there's only so much changing the penal code would do, however.

"We often talk about tolerance of other things, but when you start to make excuses and condone people's behavior like this, it signals to them it's OK," Jenkins said. "And so I think there was this culture that was developed that, 'Well, they must be stealing because they're poor,' and therefore we should excuse the stealing. 'Oh, these are big retailers, they can afford to withstand the losses.' 'We shouldn't try to protect big business over poor people.' It's kind of realizing at the end of the day — myself included, I was raised by a single mom — you can't make excuses for stealing. At the end of the day we all have to follow laws. There are many resources we have to help people."

Jenkins said that her office is not tolerant. She was brought on as district attorney after the successful recall of Chesa Boudin in 2022; under Boudin, a straight ally, the prosecution rate for petty theft reached a record low of 7.3%, and the diversion rate a record high of 63.6%, according to a 2021 SF Gate report.

She said that store closures have an impact on San Franciscans, as it affects their ability to access goods, such as medicines, and that it impacts the workers in the retail sector.

"Repeat offenders, organized crews: we're going to walk into court and articulate that we believe they are a public safety risk — which most of them are — and say 'you don't get to walk back out of this courthouse like a revolving door,'" Jenkins said. "'You have to stay there. You present a different danger to our city. You are more brazen. You are often more violent. It is a different level of assault that happens to these workers, who are dealing with four, five, ten people coming in in masks who are pushing and shoving, who are issuing threats. You are not the kind of people we are going to treat just like an ordinary shoplifter.'"

At SFPD, Ryan works on retail theft operations. He said that the department has been asking retail stores to "give us your most affected stores" and has been sending undercover officers there.

"Different corporations [the retail stores] will fly people from all around the country to help," Ryan said. "We'll watch the things going on, and when they go outside, they are confronted by uniformed officers and arrested."

The SFPD has made "north of 3,000 arrests doing that," he said. "We're in great partnership with the DA's office."

"We've done some as recently as last week," Ryan added.

Police are also trying to deal with the problem on the back-end, through fencing operations to retrieve stolen merchandise, but this requires much more interagency cooperation across law enforcement.

"Everyone knows, you see the items for sale ended up on a corner," Ryan said. "Some are shipped outside of the area and even outside of the country."

Audience members could ask questions in writing. One question asked what people could do to help the situation.

Harvey, the Mission Station captain, said that the issues Jenkins raised have been made worse by their confluence with the SFPD facing a staffing shortage. In response to the question he encouraged interested people to join the department.

Jenkins said one thing people could do to help would be to lobby their supervisor for more money for prosecutors. The DA's office currently has only one person assigned to retail theft, Jenkins said, and Ryan reiterated her request, saying hiring a second person could help prevent burnout.

"As people become more brazen, we have to help them learn that we aren't going to tolerate it," she said.

Masood Samereie, a Realtor and straight ally who is a former president of the Castro Merchants Association, attended the event. He said he's been "working with the SFPD and the DA since 2017-18, they're doing what they can with the limited resources they have."

"One of the other issues we have is merchants stop reporting, and that's an issue in itself. When they stop reporting the crime, statistics are not shown properly, and the resources are not sent to proper areas. As a result, their insurance goes up and it causes them to close," he said.

Samereie then turned to his thoughts on Prop 47.

"Prop 47, what was discussed, making the third offense a felony, that's what would make the most sense to do," he said. "Otherwise it sends a free ticket to the offenders that there's no consequences."

Samereie said that he's seen "teenagers come in groups of four to five, maybe six."

"Two stand on watch and the others fill their backpacks with all kinds of stuff," he said. "The security guard is sitting right there, also watching it. They say, 'It's OK, this happens all the time.' No, it's not OK. These kids need to be arrested and released to their parents. To them it's OK to steal, and that's what happens when they grow up. Those are the things that need attention, but I will bring it up in my meetings with the SF DA and SFPD going forward."

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!