What’s the deal with San Francisco?

June 9, 2022 • 9:45 am

I used to say that if I could live in any place in America, my first two choices would be Boston (actually, Cambridge) and San Francisco. I go back to Boston yearly, but haven’t been to San Francisco in ages.  From what I read about it, it’s gone downhill: crime-ridden and full of druggies and homeless people.

I took all this as true until I read the three articles below in recent issues of The Atlantic. It turns out that crime (at least major crime) hasn’t gone up much, if at all, although statistics for crimes like drug possession and shoplifting, because they’re not prosecuted so often, may be rising.

But the main problem, and all three articles agree on this, is homelessness, which isn’t so much a source of crime as a source of anxiety for San Francisco’s residents. This discomfort may, as the articles below suggest, be responsible for this week’s defenestration of San Francisco’s district attorney Chesa Boudin, who vowed when elected to reform the criminal justice system in the city. He’s a Democrat, and you can’t get a more Democratic city than San Francisco, so his recall (by a vote of over 60%) can’t be blamed on Republicans.

It’s instructive to read all three pieces since they agree on so much. Click to read (although you may find them paywalled as there’s a “free read limit”):


First, what did Boudin do as D.A.? From Lowrey:

Boudin has ended cash bail; ceased prosecuting cases in which the evidence came from “pretextual” traffic stops, such as when a police officer pulls over a car for a broken taillight and ends up booking the driver after finding drugs; stopped using “enhancements” that add years to the sentences of gang members; quit using the state’s “three strikes” law; filed charges against a San Francisco police officer accused of brutality; instituted a commission to identify and overturn wrongful convictions; cut the number of young people incarcerated in half and reduced the pretrial jail population. He has also expanded the use of diversion and restorative-justice programs.

That doesn’t seem so bad; it seems “progressive” in the right sense. But it gives the voters someone to blame.


Under Boudin, prosecutors in the city could no longer use the fact that someone had been convicted of a crime in the past to ask for a longer sentence, except in “extraordinary circumstances.” Boudin ended cash bail and limited the use of gang enhancements, which allow harsher sentences for gang-related felonies. In most cases he prohibited prosecutors from seeking charges when drugs and guns were found during minor traffic stops. “We will not charge cases determined to be a racist pretextual stop that leads to recovery of contraband,” Rachel Marshall, the district attorney’s director of communications, told me.

Boudin is a big proponent of “collaborative courts” that focus on rehabilitation over jail time, such as Veterans Justice Court and Behavioral Health Court, and under his tenure they tried more cases than ever before. In 2018, less than 40 percent of petty-theft cases were sent to these programs, compared with more than 70 percent last year.

Yet the effect of these changes on crime rates is debatable, and major crime doesn’t seem to have risen under Boudin.


In San Francisco, the number of murders increased from 2019 to 2021, with the homicide rate jumping 37 percent. But San Francisco has had 41 to 58 murders a year for the past decade-plus, save for 2012, when there were 68. The years of 2019, 2020, and 2021 all fell in that narrow band. The city has a similar murder rate to that of Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Paul, Minnesota. Deaths by homicide occur at roughly a quarter of the rate they do in neighboring Oakland.

Since Boudin has been in office, reported rates of violent crime in general have decreased, with the number of rapes and assaults falling well below their pre-pandemic levels. But hate crimes against the city’s Asian residents have soared, according to the police department. The city continues to have relatively high rates of property crime, and the pandemic seems to have shifted criminal activity away from touristy areas to residential ones. More people are getting their cars stolen and apartments broken into, while fewer people are getting their bags snatched.

All these numbers—local and national—come with some degree of uncertainty. Crime data are patchy and subject to significant lags. “We can tell you how many chickens were sold last week across the country,” Jennifer Doleac, an economist at Texas A&M University, told me. “But we have no idea how many homicides there were.”

On the other hand, petty crime statistics are harder to suss out. Shoplifting has clearly risen since it’s been made a misdemeanor in the city and police simply don’t respond to calls for shoplifting. As Bowles notes, “About 70 percent of shoplifting cases in San Francisco ended in an arrest in 2011. In 2021, only 15 percent did.”  This has resulted in many stores simply locking up their wares, so—like here in Chicago—if you want to buy toothpaste or deodorant, you have to find an employee to unlock a cabinet for you. Toothpaste!  This gives a sense of a city in decline, with the quality of life plummeting.

And that gets to the theses of all three articles: Boudin’s recall can’t be pinned on a real increase in major crimes but on at least six different things:

  • perception of increase in major crime that isn’t justified
  • A perceived decrease of quality of life in the city
  • The ubiquity of homeless people (4,400 sleep on the street nightly), which also causes people to see a decrease in the quality of life. For example, near City Hall is a plaza where drug addicts can shoot up, buy drugs, and get clean needles and food. People are lying around insensate, and in other parts of the city people lie dead for days without any response. Again, the sense of quality-of-life decline is exacerbated
  • A simple incompetence of Boudin and his associates at dealing with these issues, simply assuring residents that everything’s all right.
  • A conflation of homelessness with criminality (homelessness is not a crime).
  • Boudin could have been a scapegoat of the pandemic, with people staying inside and then assuming that it’s unsafe, crimewise, to go out. Also, people are in general more peevish during the pandemic, and that leads them to look for someone to blame.

Here’s one example from Bowles:

One day, [resident Jaqui] Berlinn was out looking for Corey in the Tenderloin neighborhood when she came across someone else’s son. “He was naked in front of Safeway … And he was saying he was God and he was eating a cardboard box.”

She called the police. Officers arrived but said there was nothing they could do; he said he didn’t want help, and he wasn’t hurting anyone. “They said it’s not illegal to be naked; people are in the Castro naked all the time … They just left him naked eating cardboard on the street in front of Safeway.”

What happened to the man at the Safeway, what happened to Dustin Walker—these are parables of a sort of progressive-libertarian nihilism, of the belief that any intervention that has to be imposed on a vulnerable person is so fundamentally flawed and problematic that the best thing to do is nothing at all.

All three articles give the sense that the city and Boudin didn’t care about perceptions, and even if some perceptions don’t reflect reality, they still have to be addressed. This has resulted in the claim that Boudin is incompetent.


Perhaps [progressive prosecutor Brooke Jenkins’s] strongest argument was that Boudin simply isn’t good at the job. Half the lawyers working for him have quit, retired, or been fired. She personally decided to quit after he declined to hear her out on not accepting the insanity plea of a defendant who had murdered his mother. “He never requested to meet with me via Zoom or any other mechanism,” she said. “He never requested to see the file to review.” She declined to go to court to enter into the agreement. “That was a level of irresponsibility and recklessness that I wasn’t going to participate in,” she said.

Boudin has also shown himself to be less than adept at the political role he’s taken on as D.A. He’s arguing with his own constituents about their lived experience. He’s sniping at the mayor and feuding with the police force. I can’t remember interviewing a politician who seemed less politic. I asked if there was a crime wave in San Francisco, and he said the question was in some sense fundamentally unanswerable, before citing the police statistics showing that crime had gone down. I asked if it was a problem that so many prosecutors had left his office, and he


But Henry Grabar argues that voters aren’t motivated by crime as much as homelessness:

Crime and homelessness are not, in fact, the same issue at all. They are not meaningfully correlated; they do not share causes; they do not share solutions. But in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Democrats’ inability to address the homelessness crisis is going to cost them generational progress on criminal justice, as the forces for reforming the police go into retreat.

It’s tough to watch. Reformers like Boudin (and the left wing of the Democratic Party generally) are right on principle and in practice to dismantle the system of unaccountable police, cash bail, and long prison terms for petty offenses. But they’re going to lose their chance to make it happen, because Democratic leaders have proved themselves so inept in confronting an issue that can easily be conflated with crime.


What happened to the man at the Safeway, what happened to Dustin Walker—these are parables of a sort of progressive-libertarian nihilism, of the belief that any intervention that has to be imposed on a vulnerable person is so fundamentally flawed and problematic that the best thing to do is nothing at all. Anyone offended by the sight of the suffering is just judging someone who’s having a mental-health episode, and any liberal who argues that the state can and should take control of someone in the throes of drugs and psychosis is basically a Republican. If and when the vulnerable person dies, that was his choice, and in San Francisco we congratulate ourselves on being very accepting of that choice.

I’m just the messenger here, as I haven’t seen the city in ages, but the agreement of three writers with different politics is striking. My own take is that Democrats, especially progressive ones, must address the voter’s perceptions as well as the facts. One way, of course, is to dispel the misperceptions with facts, but Boudin seems to be so bumbling that he couldn’t even do that. This would also apply to the hay Republicans are making of Democrats’ supposed fondness for teaching Critical Race Theory in classes. Insofar as that’s exaggerated, it needs to be addressed. But of course there are some cases where CRT infusion has gone too far, and one anecdote can overwhelm a lot of abstract argument.

In the case of the SF school board, three of whose members were recalled by voters, there was more tangible cause: the kerfuffle about renaming schools that were named after people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. That’s insane (the idea was ultimately shelved), and I would have voted those people, out too. (Remember, SF voters are mostly Democrats.) Bowles details other missteps of the city school board.

Of all three writers, only Bowles has suggestions about how to fix the city: the subtitle of her article is about how San Francisco could recover.  But here she has little to offer. She extols the beauty of the city, which will remain, but her suggestion is simply “more rage and recalls”.  That may work, and we may be seeing signs of voters getting fed up with “progressive” liberal reforms, but this is not a suggestion that needs to be read, pondered, and adopted: it will, if it happens, happen of its own accord:

For so long, San Francisco has been too self-satisfied to address the slow rot in every one of its institutions. But nothing’s given me more hope than the rage and the recalls. “San Franciscans feel ashamed,” Michelle Tandler told me. “I think for the first time people are like, ‘Wait, what is a progressive? … Am I responsible? Is this my fault?’”

San Franciscans are now saying: We can want a fairer justice system and also want to keep our car windows from getting smashed. And: It’s not white supremacy to hope that the schools stay open, that teachers teach children, and, yes, that they test to see what those kids have learned.

San Franciscans tricked themselves into believing that progressive politics required blocking new construction and shunning the immigrants who came to town to code. We tricked ourselves into thinking psychosis and addiction on the sidewalk were just part of the city’s diversity, even as the homelessness and the housing prices drove out the city’s actual diversity. Now residents are coming to their senses. The recalls mean there’s a limit to how far we will let the decay of this great city go. And thank God.

Because Herb Caen was right. It’s still the most beautiful city you’ll ever see.

And for me, Boston has moved into the #1 slot for the city I’d most like to live in. (It’s cheaper, too.)


29 thoughts on “What’s the deal with San Francisco?

  1. Most of Boudin’s reforms seem quite sensible, but my sense from what I’ve read is that he was dismissive and condescending towards critics. He did himself no favours if that’s the case.

    1. Boudin’s parents are Weather Underground terrorists, extended family are wealthy upper-class Marxists. He’s steeped in ideology, and went to Yale, Oxford, Rhodes scholarship, Yale Law School. He knows better than you or I do, so “dismissive and condescending” comes naturally. /s

      1. A classic ad hominem. It’s un-American to visit the sins of the parents upon the child. (Article I of the US constitution even has a provision against “Corruption of Blood.”)

        I’ve got no truck with Boudin one way or the other, but it’s interesting you saw fit to omit that one of his uncles was a respected judge on the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals and another, the esteemed investigative journalist I.F. Stone (or do you consider Izzy part of Boudin’s tainted left-wing lineage, too?).

        1. Guilty! Also sarcastic /s. I’m suspicious of wealthy Marxists, but you’re right my argument is a bad ad hom. Apologies.

            1. He personally, not any of his relatives, worked as an advisor for Hugo Chavez, during the period when the Venezuelan justice system was dismantled, and the murder rate went from 50/100k to “publication of data prohibited”.
              Reading some of his work, he seems like an idealistic and misguided sort of person. He is probably surprised that his reforms have resulted in the sort of chaos that SF is experiencing.

              The people who stroll into the stores, fill bags or carts, then stroll casually out do so because they have no fear of punishment. The guards and shopkeepers who stand by and let them take whatever they want do so because they feel that any interference with the criminals will be result in their own prosecution. Such a system has very predictable results.

  2. Regarding the gentleman outside the Safeway – what did she want the cops to do? Was she so offended by the sight of this ailing man that she would be willing to have him jailed to spare her the discomfort of acknowledging the failure of our mental health system? Eating cardboard is not a crime.

    1. Surely pick up up and get him to a shelter at the minimum. But if at all possible, the police should not be involved. This should not be their job.

      1. But even then, Safeway wasn’t complaining of him trespassing – which if they had would make your suggested police response plausible – she just didn’t like seeing him. He wasn’t harassing or criming, just existing visibly while mentally ill.

    2. It’s odd that you assume she acted out of a sense of offense rather than concern. I would certainly be concerned if I saw someone naked in public eating cardboard.

    3. Eating cardboard is not a crime, but leaving a very sick person without treatment may be one. I doubt he was suffering from lack of food as such, there are lots of institutions offering food that the half-way functional homeless know and use. Buying hin a sandwich would not have changed his situation.
      If you are ill enough to stand around naked eating cardbord, you will in all probability be grateful for treatment even if it was forced onto you at first. He needed a safe haven, a mental assessment and treatment, possibly with atypical antipsychotics. He got freedom to go on being ill without treatment and dying in a few years, all alone in the streets.
      I know each case is different, but an assessment by a specialist would surely have been a good idea.
      Half of what the police does where I live is pick up helpless persons from the streets and get them to their families or to a place where health specialists and social workers can assess them and find out how to help them.
      I myself called the police a few years ago not on, but for a helpless and probably drugged man who shouted, acted erratically and and then fell down in a heap an alleyway and stoped moving. I was too scared to get closer, but thought he might be dying/in an acute health crisis, if not already dead, so I called the police, who have more experience than I do. They came within minutes, a female officer touched him and talked to him and then they called an ambulance, collected his scattered belongings from the street and put them in a bag for him and saw him into the ambulance. I am not sure whether he was grateful that he was picked up later, but in such cases, I’d rather err on the side of caution.
      Sorry this has gotten so long. Many times in my life, I have spoken up for the right of homeless people to be where they want to be (e g sit and sleep in public libraries, even if they smell or talk to themselves), but if someone eats cardboard, they can no longer decide for themselves.

      1. Sorry to add to this. To avoid a misunderstanding, calling the police and an ambulance is the same number in Germany, the dispatcher decides what to do and in such cases they usually call both. The police came earlier because there was a police station right around the corner. The ambulance will already have been on its way when the police arrived.

      2. Hi Ruth,

        I actually agree with pretty much everything you’ve said. But this problem we are discussing is in the US. Even insured people have trouble accessing inpatient care. Our police are not social workers. Had they arrived, a good chance things could have gone south. In states/cities where we have voted to fund more social workers and community care, we are accused of defending the police. This goes back to Reagan gutting the institutional mental health system, promising to replace it with community care but never doing the replacing. So, I’d rather the fellow eat his box in piece than end up tased and in jail – or worse.

        The town I used to live in had a 2 block rule – no homeless people 2 blocks on either side of Main St. They didn’t want the wine tourists to be put off. They didn’t do anything to reduce the number, just stashed them out of sight.

  3. So tonight we will be treated to a docuhearing showing an orgy of rage from Red America over what an out of control mob believed was a stolen election. Adults, shielded from good judgement by mob mentality, overrunning the nation’s Capitol, committing mayhem. One of the most shocking events of my lifetime. But it wasn’t a stand alone orgy of rage. It was a pinnacle event after seven months of daylight protests and nighttime mayhem in urban Blue America. Mayhem, that was mostly consequence free, excused as part of the protests by Blue Media. At least that was the case here in my corner of Blue America. Those protest/riots, unleashed after three months of pandemic isolation, let some kind of lawless genie out of a bottle. Perhaps because of their focus: law enforcement as the enemy of vulnerable people, especially people of color. So the public mood, at least in youthful circles, swung to the screw the cops side of the ledger and broken policing philosophies became one of yesterday’s sins. The data on crimes is incomplete because many cops won’t arrest criminals if they know that the prosecutor won’t prosecute. Local cops tell friends that nothing will happen to a thief who stole something like a cell phone because it is petty crime so there is no reason to report it. So those of us in the vulnerable prey stage of life no longer feel safe downtown or in our homes. No longer protected by the community. Even though the country stayed shut down longer than was necessary to protect our lives from covid, progressive policing philosophies have unleashed predators to prey upon the vulnerable with impunity and I’m now in that vulnerable group. So Red America attacks my Capitol and Blue America allows predators to prey upon me. Color me feeling screwed by both of them this morning.

    1. “The data on crimes is incomplete because many cops won’t arrest criminals if they know that the prosecutor won’t prosecute. Local cops tell friends that nothing will happen to a thief who stole something like a cell phone because it is petty crime so there is no reason to report it.”

      That’s a very good point. Criminal behavior may actually be increasing between two time periods, but this increase would not be captured if many crimes stop being recorded because the police don’t bother.

  4. The armed robbery for which Chesa Boudin’s parents (David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin) were jailed was a grotesque cock-up by its own (i.e. “revolutionary”) standards: the killings they inflicted were unanticipated, the getaway was fouled up, and the perpetrators were apprehended within hours of the job.  Nonetheless, the pair were sanctified by the cultural segment within which Chesa grew up.  That is the segment in which utopian “ideals” vastly outweigh succeeding or even having the simplest competence at a task;  in other words, the pop-Left.  The recent outcome of this outlook in San Francisco should therefore be no surprise.     

    1. The Hitch had a great insult that he would roll out in particular to describe muddled intellectuals…”mush heads”. It seems like Boudin, and many of the prog-Left, are classic mush heads. The key identifier of a mush head, as you point out, is the incompetence at actually doing stuff, rather than just talking about it.

  5. Prof. Coyne: You should visit SF and see for yourself. The amount of homelessness, decay and crime is unacceptable and embarrassing for a First World country. If some of your European readers visited, they would be shocked. Ditto for all the big West Coast cities: LA, Portland, and Seattle are as bad or worse. US cities are clearly in rapid decline and part of the blame can be levelled at liberal politicians and prosecutors who see cracking down on crime as “racist.”

  6. The role of drugs in the rise of homelessness can’t be ignored.

    This EconTalk discussion with Sam Quinones is most enlightening:


    But, an encampment particularly made up of many people who are using meth is almost like–I kind of look at it as like Friends at the bar–and I’m sorry in Cheers, rather, not Friends. Where everybody knows your name, where everybody kind of accepts you as a meth user; where there’s this warmth in using meth; that everyone’s doing it together. You don’t feel weird. You don’t feel like people look at you strange. And so, these encampments are a direct result of that.

    First of all, they’re a direct result of the sheer numbers of people. I’m really convinced that most of the people in those encampments are damaged by methamphetamine. Homeless does [is?] a difficult thing. And, I’ll call it one thing–there’s all kinds of homelessness. There’s the shredded safety net kind of homeless person who has an operation that he needs and loses his job and he can’t afford a house and the operation. That’s a very different person than the person who is in a tent encampment. That person probably has family, a garage, a sofa he can sleep on, ways of dealing, ways of coping with this new world he finds himself in; and they don’t tend to remain homeless very long.

    Whereas on meth, the folks who are on meth are homeless for quite a while. That’s a totally different form of homelessness. And so, the tent becomes the community: the encampments then become the community, where the common denominator is drug use.

  7. I live and work in San Francisco and mostly agree with the articles you’ve posted. It definitely feels like homelessness, shoplifting, and car break-ins are out of control. Boudin didn’t do a good job of addressing these perceptions and voters wanted someone to vent their frustrations on.
    But a tougher DA can’t solve issues caused by much larger problems. Homelessness won’t disappear in a society where the homeless and mentally ill have a patchy safety net, or where medical, construction,and housing costs are far too high. It doesn’t help that San Francisco’s city government is disorganized, sclerotic, and sometimes even corrupt. Nor that the police behave like lazy, petulant prima donnas. Nor that too many residents are NIMBYs standing in the way of progress.
    Lots of things need to change in this city. But the Fox News perception that San Francisco is hell on earth is false. Tourists will certainly deplore the number of homeless folks on the street, but unless they venture into the Tenderloin they’ll have little to worry about. That said, don’t leave anything that looks even remotely valuable in your car.

  8. The last time I was in The City….I thought I’d walk from the Embarcadero to my hotel, just off Market St. Within only a few blocks, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. Human feces, urine, open drug use, panhandlers….and I couldn’t find a cab! I called my hotel for advice and the desk clerk offered to stay with me on the phone until I got there. Apparently, cabs are now as rare as clean sidewalks!
    It’s almost impossible to imagine a solution to the problem. All I know is, S.F. should be removed from travel guide recommendation books.

  9. Sorry, but to most humans it is offensive and disturbing to see a naked human eating a box outside Safeway (maybe not outside Fred Meyers? really) and that is NOT a perception; it is a visceral, physiological and mental disturbance to a persons thoughts, day, travels, and life. We are, in good part , modern humans (living in congested conditions) because we have “standards” for conduct, and we have rules and regulations that protect those standards, or at least, we did have.

    It may be that someone is prepared to overlook the violations of these standards, for the apparent sake of being progressive, but the intrusion / invasiveness effect this has on people who abide by these standards” is real, and increasingly ignored or dismissed.

    In my view this permissiveness of extreme behavior has to stop, and the only way forward is opposite to tolerance; regulated confinement or care, is what I call it. Containment, with care and enforcement, is the only way out. Otherwise, you have all the costly , divisive, diversionary issues degrading government and most humans lives that plague San Francisco and far too many communities, large and small, in America today.

    1. Yes, and I’d include as extreme behavior walking into stores with big trash bags, helping yourself to whatever you want while customers and employees stand and watch, and walking out knowing that you will never be punished for it.

      The psychological effect on bystanders is enormous, regardless of what the crime stats look like.

  10. I’m disturbed by the notion that homelessness is some sort of “lifestyle”. It should be viewed similar to being on welfare or in prison…a horrible, undignified situation that should be considered transitory, as in all efforts should be made to get people out of these situations and into being productive citizens.

    The public spaces in our towns and cities are just that…public spaces, to be used collectively by the public at large and not to be commandeered by individuals and turned into their makeshift domiciles and latrines.

  11. I grew up in Reno, NV during the late 70’s and 80’s. Reno is about 4.5 hours from S.F., and we used to go there for concerts (every big band played in the Bay Area), shop Haight/Ashbury, hang out at Golden Gate Park, etc. My friends and I loved S.F., and we never had a bad experience; it was a large part of our youth culture. I haven’t been there for nearly 30 years; reading about its current state is really depressing.

  12. Having lived in Back Bay and Brookline,Boston is my favorite city, except for the weather.
    Now in the San Francisco East Bay town of El Cerrito. If Boston had our weather, that is where I would be.

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