It ought to be possible to operate a retail store in one of America’s largest and most iconic cities, but this most basic commercial proposition is in doubt in San Francisco.
The erstwhile Golden City is beset by an ongoing tide of theft that is closing down retail locations and demonstrating again the city’s unwillingness to govern itself.
Cities around the country dub themselves “the capital” of this or that signature product: artichokes in Castroville, Calif.; earmuffs in Farmington, Maine; spinach in Alma, Ark.; fried chicken in Barberton, Ohio.
San Francisco, and the larger Bay Area, could now easily claim the title of Shoplifting Capital of the U.S.A., should it want the honor.
The viral video of brazen thefts has become one of the city’s most influential cultural exports.
Hey, look — here are 80 people engaged in a large-scale, smash-and-grab robbery of a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek outside of San Francisco last weekend, one of a series of jaw-dropping thefts over the past several days, including an operation that cleared out a Louis Vuitton on San Francisco’s Union Square.
Check this out — people with fancy handbags running out of a Neiman Marcus into waiting cars.
You won’t believe it — this guy loads merchandise from a Walgreen’s into a big trash bag and jumps on his bike to ride down the aisle and out of the store.
These aren’t episodic crimes. Walgreens says that its San Francisco stores experience a level of theft five times the national average. As a consequence, the chain has been steadily closing locations. It has shuttered 17 already and last month announced five more closures, including the one hit by the man on the bike (who was finally arrested after robbing the store one too many times).
Target and Safeway have been reducing hours to try to limit the exposure of their locations to theft.
Stores often put the likes of toothpaste and shampoo behind security locks, as if they are high-end goods or the outlets are operating in Caracas, Venezuela.
The shoplifting problem represents a deliberate choice rather than an unstoppable tide. Modern societies long ago figured out how to maintain civil order such that law-abiding people could buy and sell goods without being systematically preyed on by thieves. It’s just that the Bay Area has chosen to forget.
California adopted Proposition 47 in 2014 that made thefts of $950 or less a misdemeanor. Once people realized that they were unlikely to be arrested or prosecuted for stealing less than $1,000, they, of course, responded to the incentive. For their part, the stores advise employees not to interfere with shoplifters, lest they get hurt. Many crimes don’t even go reported.
And so, it is open season for people to take whatever they want.
New York City famously reestablished order in the 1990s based on “broken windows” policing, or a focus on offenses that degraded the quality of life; San Francisco and similar locales are engaged in “broken windows” neglect — the broken windows being at high-end stores struck by emboldened robbers.
This is a polity deciding that it is more important to stay its own hand from arresting and jailing criminals than to protect businesses from getting robbed, protect duly employed people from having to watch reprobates flout the law, and protect neighborhoods from losing retail outlets that they depend on.
The stance of San Francisco isn’t exactly anti-business. No, it is, in effect, privileging one business model over another. On the one hand, there are the legitimate businesses that buy their goods and sell them in legal market transactions. On the other, there are the organized-crime rings that oversee the theft of vast amounts of merchandise that is turned around and sold online.
The former model should be given the environment to thrive, the latter ground to dust. A rational society knows this, and perhaps, one day, San Francisco will again as well.