The 'little things' are turning San Francisco bad in a big way

I was based in San Francisco as a correspondent with CBS News in the late 1970s. I remember that, back then, more than a few of us referred to the city as “Halloween-by-the-sea” — a good-natured nod to the city’s quirkiness.   

Over the years, the progressives who ran the city government would weigh in on one foreign policy matter or another, which prompted one wise guy to write that it was the only city in America with both Rice-A-Roni (“the San Francisco treat,” as the TV ad jingle put it) and a foreign policy.

Just between us, I was the wise guy who wrote that. 

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The quirkiness added to the beauty of the place, the most beautiful city in America as far as I was concerned. But that was a long time ago. Now, San Francisco is a very dark, sad place.

It’s not only the homeless people whose tents line the streets and sidewalks. It’s not only that they use the sidewalks as their bathrooms — or that they’re at times violent. And it’s not only that the city had twice as many fatal drug overdoses as deaths attributed to the coronavirus. It’s also what we used to consider “small stuff” — relatively minor infractions, such as shoplifting.

Today, San Francisco apparently is the shoplifting capital of America. According to the New York Times: “At a board of supervisors hearing [last month], representatives from Walgreens said that thefts at its stores in San Francisco were four times the chain’s national average, and that it had closed 17 stores, largely because the scale of thefts had made business untenable.”

Today’s shoplifters don’t simply steal a candy bar when no one is looking. I saw a video recently that showed a man who rode his bicycle into a San Francisco Walgreens drug store, loaded up one of those large black trash bags with everything he could get his hands on, and then hopped on his bike and rode out of the store — right past a private security guard.

According to the Times, “Brendan Dugan, the director of the retail crime division at CVS Health, called San Francisco ‘one of the epicenters of organized retail crime’ and said employees were instructed not to pursue suspected thieves because encounters had become too dangerous.”

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“We’ve had incidents where our security officers are assaulted on a pretty regular basis in San Francisco,” Dugan said.

In case you’re wondering how this could happen — in broad daylight, no less, and on what has become a regular basis — here’s one great big factor: In 2014, Californians passed Proposition 47 that reclassified nonviolent theft as misdemeanors as long as the stolen goods are worth less than — wait for it! — $950.

If you pretty much decriminalize shoplifting, don’t be shocked when you get more shoplifting. Thieves may have no morals but they do have a modicum of intelligence, what we like to call “street smarts.” They understand that the cops almost certainly won’t respond to a call about shoplifting and that if, on some outside chance, the police did show up, they’d still be in the clear. They know that they’ll never spend a day behind bars for loading up a garbage bag and casually riding their bicycle out of the store.

But if Proposition 47 applies to the entire state of California, why haven’t other cities in the state seen the same spike in shoplifting? What is it about San Francisco that turned it into such a mecca for shoplifters? 

One reason is that San Francisco long has had a bohemian, “anything goes” mentality — but, until recently, no one thought that meant thieves could walk into a store, take what they want, and casually walk out. 

Enter the city’s new district attorney, who took over in January 2020 and decided not to prosecute so-called quality-of-life crimes as part of his plan, as one local news report put it, “to help the city’s more disenfranchised populations.”

“We will not prosecute cases involving quality-of-life crimes,” the DA, Chesa Boudin, said in an interview while he was campaigning for office. “Crimes such as public camping, offering or soliciting sex, public urination, blocking a sidewalk, etc., should not and will not be prosecuted.” Despite that — or maybe because of it — he was elected.

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If a top city official doesn’t think quality-of-life crimes are worth pursuing, then the people of San Francisco should expect their quality of life to hit the skids. And it has. 

We rightly worry about all the big things — the kind of rioting and arson we witnessed last summer that a lot of journalists called “mostly peaceful demonstrations.” We worry about viruses that may kill us. We fret over our ever-expanding national debt. We worry about the prospects of war.

But the “little things” matter too. Societies can’t thrive, they can’t go on indefinitely, when people can urinate (and worse) on the sidewalks, or block streets, or pretend that ransacking store shelves and walking out without paying is no big deal — because it is a very big deal. Once the little things become tolerated, it’s not long before bigger, bad things start to happen routinely as well. 

It takes time for societies to fall apart, to crumble. Laws matter; order matters. Believing that you live in a safe place where miscreants don’t run free ... that matters, too.  

If you want to know what America would be like if progressives ever took over the country, just go to San Francisco and look around. But be careful. Halloween-by-the-sea has become a very scary place.

Bernard Goldberg is an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist. He was a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.