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The Broken Windows Theory

Riding shotgun with an experimental SFPD unit tasked with ending the city’s break-in epidemic.


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City of Broken Glass
San Francisco’s explosion of car break-ins has been part and parcel of a serious uptick in overall reported property crime.

Source: SFPD

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Lieutenant Luke Martin’s demeanor had changed. Gone was the conversational chitter-chatter; now he was silent and serious and focused on the disturbingly quiet police radio. His gaze turned intense as it darted between the busy thoroughfare and the dashboard. His was one of eight unmarked police vehicles that had been tailing Deshawn Patton, 20, and Bernard Sieps, 28, suspects in several auto break-ins, as they motored a silver Mercedes-Benz around San Francisco, unaware that they were being tracked by a caravan of police officers. But when the suspects drove into the 1,000-plus acres of Golden Gate Park, they suddenly disappeared among the winding roadways and thickening afternoon-commute traffic. 

“Has anyone got eyes on them?” a tense voice crackled over the radio. There was another long, uncomfortable silence. An officer noted that the two suspects had last been seen near a parking area behind the Conservatory of Flowers. Suddenly the radio was alive again. The officers recited their locations as they spread out to various intersections around the conservatory, hoping to regain a visual on the Benz. “We may have lost them,” said Martin, who heads up the 15-member Patrol Bureau Task Force, which is charged with reducing the city’s astronomical number of auto burglaries. “It’s OK. We’ll find them again. In the meantime, I’ll just take a look behind the conservatory to make sure we didn’t miss a break-in.”

Martin turned down a narrow road that wound behind the stately Victorian-era structure. He stopped alongside a parked car to assess a pile of broken auto glass. “That’s not our guys. It’s not fresh,” he said. “The car doesn’t have any broken windows.” He nosed his unmarked vehicle back into the heavy traffic on John F. Kennedy Drive. 

“I have them,” a voice said calmly over the closed-circuit radio. “They just turned onto Fulton heading west.”

The undercover procession fell in behind Patton and Sieps as the suspects traversed the city along a silk route of auto burglary hotspots: the Cliff House, Lands End, the Legion of Honor, Japantown, the Embarcadero. At Fisherman’s Wharf, Patton got out of the Benz to walk the line, police lingo for strolling along the curb beside parked cars to look for valuables. But he apparently saw nothing interesting; he got back into the Benz, and Sieps sped off down Bay Street with a half dozen police vehicles stealthily in tow. 

After hours of surveillance, the task force had yet to witness the two men break into any cars. Finally, with the onset of dusk, Sieps and Patton pulled the Benz into the parking lot of a doughnut shop on Fifth Street and went in to eat. “Casing cars is hard work,” Martin deadpanned. “You have to keep your strength up.”

The fact that 
several undercover officers spent the better part of a day unproductively surveilling two suspected auto burglars illustrates how difficult it has been for the SFPD to beat back the tsunami of auto break-ins that has washed over the city in recent years. In 2015, there were 25,899 reports of “theft from vehicles” robberies, which works out to about 71 per day. That’s a roughly 150 percent spike from just 2011. And while smashing a car window, grabbing valuables, and speeding away might seem like something a bored teenager would do on a dare, the cost to victims is no kid stuff. According to a 2016 San Francisco civil grand jury report, auto burglars made off with $19 million in stolen goods in the previous year, to say nothing of the victims’ repair costs. More embarrassingly for city officials, police made arrests in less than 2 percent of those reported cases. That’s right: 98 percent of the auto burglaries reported in 2015 resulted in no law enforcement consequences whatsoever—which only added to the city’s reputation as a very desirable place to break into cars. 

Pitting Martin and his team against suspected serial burglars might be the SFPD’s best solution to one of the city’s worst problems. And things do seem to be improving: According to the DA’s office, as of the end of November, the city was on track to see a 13 percent decline in auto burglaries in 2016 (down to a mere 58 a day). Martin’s Patrol Bureau Task Force, which was formed in October 2015, has made a dent by targeting the most frequent offenders and registering 120 arrests of suspects who were thought to be responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of smash-and-grabs. “We’re not necessarily going after the guy who is looking for a fix,” Martin says. “A lot of the guys we arrest are driving Jaguars, they’re living in nice houses, they have expensive clothes and jewelry.”

Indeed, the 63-page grand jury report determined that a vast majority of smash-and-grabs are being committed by roughly 20 percent of offenders. These are typically professional criminals organized into work groups like modern-day raiding parties. The crime itself is usually carried out in less than a minute; one suspect keeps a lookout, another smashes the car window and grabs any available goods, and a third acts as getaway driver. Then the crew flees to another neighborhood, looking for its next victim. In other cases, gang members work in larger groups and will sometimes hit every car on a single block before fleeing. Cops suspect that these roving smash-and-grab crews are familiar with police tactics, often sharing intelligence through word of mouth and social media about neighborhoods that are under police surveillance—including descriptions of undercover vehicles and disguises undercover officers might be using.

It’s no secret how tough it is to make a good case against a suspected auto burglar: In order to charge a suspect with a felony, the crime has to be witnessed, captured on video, or riddled with fingerprints. That’s the main reason Martin’s team identifies serial auto burglars and surveils them as they break into vehicles—often several vehicles—before making an arrest. The greater the number of auto break-ins witnessed firsthand, the better chance prosecutors have of winning long sentences. But it’s cold comfort to victims whose cars were ransacked as cops looked on. And it’s a tough assignment for the cops who must, in essence, sit on their hands and watch criminals commit crimes.

“The whole letting-them-go part is really hard,” Martin admits. “It goes against every cop’s instinct: to run in and grab a suspect once they witness them commit a crime.” But to do that would be pound-foolish. If the suspects are in a car, which they often are, attempting to make an arrest immediately after the break-in risks sparking a dangerous high-speed chase. “When they’re in cars, we can’t do it by policy, and we can’t do it morally,” Martin says. “These guys are amped up while they’re breaking into cars, and they’ll run without caring if people are in the street or on a sidewalk.”

Most often, the task force will continue following the suspects and either witness them breaking into more cars or track them home and arrest them there. “That way, we can get a search warrant for their homes to retrieve property and collect more evidence, which also makes for stronger cases,” Martin says. “It makes way more sense to follow them to an area where they’re away from their cars, where they can be safely arrested.”

Though the cops
are working hard to reduce the problem, they’re still struggling with the question of why it exists at all. Why have auto burglary rates skyrocketed in San Francisco while they’ve declined in other places? When tabulating incidents, most cities don’t separate auto burglaries from the general heading of “property crimes,” but a quick glance at stats from other Bay Area cities indicates that in nearly all of them, property crimes during 2015 were down, while San Francisco’s shot upward. In Oakland, property crime was down 2.7 percent; Antioch saw an 8 percent drop; and San Jose experienced a modest increase of less than half a percent.

Some point the finger at ineffective police, others at the district attorney’s supposed unwillingness to prosecute auto burglary cases. (In fact, District Attorney George Gascón’s office boasts that it has taken action on around 80 percent of auto burglary cases since 2014. And the DA has worked to land stiff penalties for suspects who are, by and large, implicated in many cases.) Proposition 47, which raised felony thresholds, comes under fire, as does the purported leniency of San Francisco judges. But all of these culprits come with caveats, perhaps most glaringly Prop. 47. State voters approved it in November 2014, which was months after the unprecedented surge in property crime had begun in the city. Also, Prop. 47’s detractors have yet to explain how a statewide measure would trigger a spike in San Francisco while leaving crime rates in other cities stable or in decline. 

Despite the speculation and deflection, there are some agreed-upon factors. One is that the career criminals who were in other fields of crime, such as drug dealing and home burglaries, have migrated to auto burglary. According to Martin, this was motivated by a sense of self-preservation. Drug dealers are at risk of violence from territorial beefs with other dealers and are themselves vulnerable to armed robbery. Breaking into homes, meanwhile, can result in a violent encounter with a resident and heavier sentences for those who are convicted. But to be sentenced for any crime, you first must be arrested. And car thieves, it seems, couldn’t help noticing that, in recent years, there was little chance of an arrest being made in San Francisco. “If you have a 98 percent chance of getting away with a crime, you’ll commit it again,” district attorney chief of staff Cristine DeBerry said in a March 2016 committee meeting. 

According to the grand jury report, the city’s auto burglary problem could be tied to the 2009 dissolution of the SFPD’s Serial Investigative Units. These details operated citywide and were staffed by officers possessing both specialized investigative skills and institutional knowledge of the city’s criminals. The SIUs, with their citywide reach, were decommissioned in an effort to increase community policing. But without the centralized units, property crime investigations became the responsibility of the precincts. Some precincts do a better job than others; resources and manpower that can be devoted to property crime differ by neighborhood. But every precinct has struggled to curtail a crime that is, by its very nature, a citywide problem. 

On the September
day that a San Francisco reporter rode along with Martin, the task force did not witness Deshawn Patton and Bernard Sieps break any laws, let alone break into any cars. But in October, search warrants were issued for both suspects as well as two additional members of their purported auto burglary ring. Police attempted to arrest Patton on October 20 in the Bayview district, but he ran to his car and escaped after ramming an occupied police vehicle. On October 25, Patton was caught in Antioch along with an alleged accomplice. Police recovered stolen property at the premises, including a gun stolen in a 2012 burglary. The DA charged Patton with numerous felonies, including six counts of aggravated assault on a police officer, three counts of auto burglary, possession of stolen property, and one count of committing a felony while out on bail. (Patton was also on probation for a previous conviction of felony auto burglary.)

The task force arrested Sieps the next day. The DA charged him with four counts of auto burglary and another four counts of possession of stolen property. He received an additional count for violating his probation for two prior convictions.

If the task force’s earlier wasted day reveals the shortcomings of focusing nearly exclusively on alleged high-volume offenders, the bevy of charges leveled at Patton and Sieps indicates its upside. When Martin’s team targets experienced and prolific auto burglars who work in effective, organized crews, it stands to reason that the incidence of auto burglaries drops significantly with each arrest.

Another September day at the Hall of Justice, Martin walked with an easy gait across the sparse offices of the Patrol Bureau Task Force. There were several computer stations but no cubicles, and, on one wall, a board with postings of auto burglary data and mug shots of suspects clad in county-issued orange. Outside Martin’s office sat a pile of items: a bicycle, clothing, backpacks. “That’s evidence that still has to be logged in,” he said. “We’ve been a bit busy.” 

Martin says the task force arrest numbers have been good, but he has tried to focus on the job at hand and not on statistics. He’s gratified to hear that auto burglaries have declined since the task force began operating last year with just a handful of investigators. And he’s also painfully aware that auto burglary numbers in San Francisco are still unacceptably high. 

Far from seeing his mission as quixotic, Martin says he’s still optimistic that the police department will turn back the overwhelming tide of auto burglaries: “When you realize there are real victims and communities that are really impacted, it keeps the fight going in you.” The burglars would be back on the street tomorrow. So would he.


Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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