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.)