Comedian Dave Chappelle visited San Francisco last week to perform. “What the f—k happened to this place?” he asked, declaring that the whole city has morphed into its infamous Tenderloin district. “Y’all … need a Batman!”
It’s no joke.
Crime statistics posted by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) show that both property and violent crimes are on the rise. The most common crime by far is larceny theft, which the SFPD defines as the “unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another,” like shoplifting.
In San Francisco, as in many other American cities, footage of thieves brazenly helping themselves to merchandise in supermarkets, drugstores and other retail establishments now regularly appears online.
Some civic leaders have leaned into the lawlessness. Progressive prosecutors like former San Francisco district attorney George Gascón and his successor, the since–recalled Chesa Boudin, implemented policies under which misdemeanors would not be prosecuted, felonies would be downgraded to misdemeanors, and radical bail reforms would keep offenders on the streets.
San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, a “Democratic Socialist,” is proposing legislation to prohibit retail security guards from simply unholstering a gun to protect property. He states it is “entirely unacceptable that our local law includes drawing a weapon to respond to protecting property… We need to make sure that our local law is crystal clear that a security guard cannot draw a weapon to protect property.” A section of San Francisco’s Police Code, enacted over 40 years ago, currently prohibits any “armed guard” from drawing or exhibiting “other than in a holster [,] any handgun except in lawful response to an actual and specific threat to person and/or property.”
The flashpoint prompting this new measure is the fatal shooting of Banko Brown, an alleged shoplifter, during an altercation with a drugstore security guard, after the guard stopped Brown from leaving the store with merchandise. It is debatable whether Preston’s amendment would have any bearing on such situations. According to news reports, the guard stated that Brown had repeatedly threatened to stab him, although police did not find a knife on Brown. San Francisco’s district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, declined to file criminal charges against the guard after an investigation determined that he “acted in lawful self-defense when he fired his weapon at Brown.”
One obvious difficulty is it’s not always “crystal clear” when and whether such confrontations will escalate to threatened or actual physical harm, especially when dealing with the mentally ill or those under the influence of street drugs. A spokesperson for the Retail Industry Leaders Association says that aggressive and violent retail thefts are on the rise, as these crimes are intensifying exponentially: “It’s getting more brazen, it’s getting more violent, and … it’s caused in part by the lack of accountability that these criminal actors are being held to.” The association’s report on the impact of “organized retail crime” (professional shoplifting and other theft in retail stores) reveals an “alarming spike” in violence. Over 86 percent of retail asset protection managers surveyed indicated that an organized retail criminal had verbally threatened bodily harm; nearly 76 percent reported that an organized retail criminal had actually physically assaulted an associate; nearly 76 percent indicated “that a criminal has threatened the use of a weapon,” and over 40 percent said that a weapon had actually been used to cause harm.
A poll of San Francisco’s own small-business community this year revealed that despite crime being common, the major issue respondents identified wasn’t “shoplifting /retail crime” itself but “increased public safety concerns as a result of disruptive behavior.” One owner commented that “the mental illness on the streets has hurt our ability to keep staff, we don’t get prompt response from police, and we are consistently boldly shoplifted which hurts morale.”
Supervisor Preston’s website hails him as “a longtime neighborhood advocate, defending small businesses,” yet legal “solutions” like his ignore the actual businesses being victimized in the epidemic of theft and other crimes and the ripple effect on the broader community. Why is it “entirely unacceptable” to allow a licensed guard to simply draw a weapon in response to the commission of a property crime, including serious felonies like auto theft, arson, or burglary? Retailers and residents already have no expectation that criminals, including repeat offenders, will be charged and prosecuted. Even the limited, potential deterrent effect posed by the presence of an armed security guard is restricted under current law, because the onus is on the guard to show that drawing a gun was a “lawful response to an actual and specific threat.”
Not everyone is blinded by progressive notions of public safety. Tech entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale was incredulous, responding to Preston’s new law with, “SF leaders are basically openly inciting robbery. A security guard damn well can defend you and your property with a gun, in a free country. I’m worried for my friends and colleagues we left behind in this lawless city.” Twitter executive Elon Musk added, “If security guards can’t protect stores, offices, homes or themselves from violent criminals, who would remain in San Francisco?”
As the City by the Bay unravels into a vast open-air drug market, it’s not too far-fetched to predict that the next move from lawmakers will be a law that prohibits guards from drawing a weapon in any circumstances. After all, there’s more than one comedy act in town.