One Target store has nearly 2000 thefts this year

Zero were reported, but new reporting tools could change that

In a Sept. 22 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, crime reporter Megan Cassidy wrote that shoplifting in the city had “recovered to just below pre-pandemic levels,” with 710 reported incidents in the first four months of 2021. She linked to another Chronicle article from June written by her colleague, data reporter Susie Neilson, to support the numbers. “Data from the San Francisco Police Department suggests these reports may be overblown,” Neilson wrote. “According to the data, overall shoplifting incidents reported to the police are below their levels before the start of the pandemic.”

One look at the comments section under both articles will tell you San Franciscans aren’t buying it — and they shouldn’t. The Chronicle is only using “reported” incidents. Anyone who has shopped in a Target or a Walgreens in the city knows that most go unreported. I was recently at a Walgreens on Columbus Ave. when a young man casually started grabbing toiletries from the shelves. He stuffed them in his backpack and casually walked out.

Later that same week I went to the Walgreens on Chestnut Street where I noticed a police officer sitting at the door. “Was there a lot of shoplifting before they hired you?” I asked. He nodded his head in a big animated way, “Oh yea, it was a free-for-all.”

Even Inside Edition, a national tabloid TV show, has been to San Francisco twice to cover the issue — and both times saw thefts happening as they filmed. The entire world saw the June 14, video taken by ABC7 news reporter Lyanne Melendez, who happened to be shopping at her local Hayes Valley Walgreens when a man rode a bike into the store, shoved items in a garbage bag, and biked out as she and the security guard looked on. The post received over 6 million views on Twitter alone and made the national news. But a month before that, the New York Times ran an article titled “San Francisco’s Shoplifting Surge,” by Thomas Fuller, subtitled “The mundane crime of shoplifting has spun out of control in San Francisco, forcing some chain stores to close.”

So why do so many reporters in San Francisco want to tell you otherwise? There are plenty of theories, but most readers believe members of the (very) left-leaning press don’t want to see District Attorney Chesa Boudin take the heat as he faces an almost certain recall election. If that’s true, shame on them. If it’s not true, shame on them. Either way, a simple Sunshine request could have produced some fascinating insight.

1,989 thefts totaling $330,000

In a Sept. 20 email to Commander Peter Walsh titled “Unreported thefts from Target,” Sergeant Mark Milligan writes, “We briefly talked about the unreported thefts from Target. Year to date thefts from only the 789 Mission St. Target location: 1,989 thefts totaling $330,010.00. They just started making the telephone reports a couple weeks ago but haven't been fully integrated into CDW for stat tracking, so I would guess you could say less than 1% was reported from those numbers.”

As I read the email, it didn’t shock me and it likely won’t shock you. That’s why it’s so frustrating to have the daily paper tell us we’re wrong.

One of my reporter friends was so incensed that she went to the Target at Stonestown, lifted some items and walked out. “No one said anything,” she told me afterward. She went back into the store and returned the items, asking the clerks why no one stopped her, to which the clerks responded “It’s not allowed.”

Another person emailed me to describe an incident at the same location, where a woman filled her shopping cart with economy-sized laundry detergent, walked past the checkout stands, and headed out the door. A security guard followed her into the parking lot and began taking detergent out of her cart as she continued stuffing what she could in her car. After cursing at the guard, she got in her car and drove away.

So is it really surprising that Target has reduced its hours in San Francisco? The Chronicle seems to think so. After a July 12 press conference where Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott walked a tightrope to assuage fears the city had descended into lawlessness while still acknowledging the “personal safety concerns” of residents and tourists, Megan Cassidy wrote, “Much of the rancor in the last year has centered on progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, with critics insisting his policies have made the city less safe while others say the data doesn’t bear that out.” Perhaps she’s right if you’re only looking at reported crimes, but clearly many crimes go unreported, especially shoplifting. That, however, could soon change.

“Retail theft is way, way, way under-reported”

In a Sept. 15 email, Milligan writes to Jason Cunningham, Program Manager of SFPD’s Professional Standards & Principled Policing Bureau, “Retail theft is way, way, way under-reported. I would estimate less than 10% gets reported. I just rolled out telephone reporting, which was not an option. I only offered it to 1 store (Target, 789 Mission St). They have made approximately 40 reports in about 2 weeks, which normally would not have been reported. I’m working with IT to roll out online reporting for retail stores, which was not an option…”

Cunningham follows up with a group email on Sept. 22, noting that he is “working with FOB to track changes in collection methods so we’re able to note how/when/why a potential spike in retail theft incodes occurs due to reporting changes. The Chief was solid in his explanation about an increase in reports coming soon during the press conference this morning…” He ends the email, “Finally, and FYI only, FOB noted that our inbound theft numbers may see a very significant spike: "1 Target store has a year to date in house tally of 1,989 thefts totaling $330, of which were reported."

Once SFPD implements these new techniques for retailers to report theft, the data should follow with those “spikes.” That might catch the Chronicle off guard, but not the rest of us.

Follow me on Twitter: @SusanDReynolds