IIn mid-October, Walgreens announced the impending closure of five of its San Francisco stores. “Retail theft” had risen to unsustainable levels despite increased investment in security, the chain said. It was time to give up.
In the months before the announcement, viral videos of naughty shoplifting attempts in Walgreen̵[ads1]7;s locations in the city – including one that appeared to show a man cycling out of a shop with a garbage bag filled with stolen items – had put it at the center of a heated national debate about fear for a pandemic-induced “crime wave”.
To critics of San Francisco’s leaders, the closures seemed to confirm a long-held story of people outside the city and increasingly of those inside: that San Francisco is a lawless place where officials close their eyes to crime, to the detriment of local businesses. Political leaders, including Mayor London Breed, pointed to Walgreens. “When a place does not generate revenue and when it is saturated – Walgreens has many Walgreens locations throughout the city – I think there are other factors that come into play,” Breed told reporters.
But neighborhood representatives and advocates for people trapped in the justice system paint a more complex picture of Walgreen’s role in San Francisco and the city’s fight against shoplifting in recent years.
They described Walgreens stores as essential places where San Franciscans can get staple food at a reasonable price and pick up medicines and other necessities at the last minute. “We have seniors, working families and longtime customers, and I think it’s going to be extremely disruptive, especially for older people who are more pattern-based,” Ahsha Safai said of the closures.
Safai represents the Excelsior District, just outside the historic Latino Mission District, on the San Francisco Supervisory Board. The neighborhood’s Walgreens, which closed Nov. 11, sat on a busy stretch of Mission Street, surrounded by clothing stores, banks and locally owned eateries. One Tuesday afternoon in the weeks before it closed, it was lively in the store with seniors picking up necessities and residents waiting to be called to the pharmacy counter.
Many shoppers jump off the nearby bus lines to get to Walgreens, making it a convenient stop in an area with a lot of traffic where parking can be unimaginable, Safai said. Pedestrian traffic from nearby shops feeds Walgreens and vice versa, making the pharmacy an important part of the neighborhood’s retail ecosystem.
Safai said he had worked with police and community organizations to tackle retail crime in his neighborhood. “For the most extreme, it must have consequences. People need to know that they can not enter the store with a garbage bag, he said.
“But we are not going to imprison ourselves out of this problem,” he warned. “We need to redirect people to the right path.”
“Walgreens were important”
Gina Mullens’ father has worked for Walgreens for more than 40 years, first in the Mission District and then in the East Bay. She remembers going on a company picnic when she was growing up and chose to shop at a Walgreens rather than CVS because of the family’s long history with the company. “Walgreens are a big, big part of my life. It sounds banal, but it fed my family.”
Mullens now lives in the East Bay, where she sees her local Walgreens show clear signs of theft. More and more objects are locked behind plexiglass, she said, and some shelves are generally empty. While she is frustrated with the waiting time required to get a store employee to unlock the products, she does not necessarily judge them as store thieves from the store. “I understand that tough times do not judge anyone. Do what you have to do to feed your family. “
Before moving across Bay Bridge, Mullens worked in public housing near Walgreens Place on Cesar Chavez Street in the Mission District. She got flu shots for her four children there and picked up kitchen utensils at lower prices than at the local grocery store. The place is scheduled to close on November 17.
“That Walgreens was important, at least for my family,” Mullens said of the Mission District location. “It’s closer than Safeway, has more goods than the corner store, and they have a pharmacy attached. It’s been a staple, so it’s heartbreaking to see them shut down in neighborhoods that really need them.”
Mullens works for the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to divert people from shoplifting. The program helps participants stay on top of court appearances and court rulings and connects them to employment, addiction and other services that may prevent them from taking a new charge. Mullens guides employees and works with the groups that provide services to the non-profit organization’s customers.
The organization’s CEO, David Mauroff, said there was no denying that people stole from drug stores, clothing stores and out of cars. Mauroff, like many San Franciscans, has a Walgreens connection. “I do not know how many times we have run in to get cold medicine because our kid could not sleep,” he said of the chain’s location in Excelsior.
Mauroff has seen people steal in his shop. But he worries that high-profile incidents are hiding the decline in property crime that the city reported in 2020. And while he has not seen any increase in the number of customers coming to the organization, he has noticed that hotspots for theft in San Francisco have changed during the course of the pandemic.
“There are fewer tourists and people driving to work – that was where the burglaries were before. But because of Covid, people had to find another destination, and unfortunately it became Walgreens and other stores. “
“We can not be driven by hysteria”
Crime data are complex and often incomplete, and a comprehensive picture of what happened in the city during the pandemic still emerges. San Francisco has long recorded higher levels of property crime than other cities in California, but recent data suggests that while some categories of crime have increased, others have declined.
Theft, the category that shoplifting falls into, appears to have declined from 2019 to 2020, bringing the total property crime down, according to the San Francisco Police Crime Survey. Offenses including rape and robbery also declined in 2020, a San Francisco Chronicle analysis of recent FBI data indicated. Murder, car theft and burglary all increased, according to the same FBI data.
The decline in shoplifting appears to continue in 2021. In 2020, there were 12,266 reported incidents and around 380 arrests for the offense, according to data from the San Francisco District Attorney. At the end of October 2021, around 200 people have been arrested for theft or theft this year, and there have been 9,221 reports. At the end of September last year, there were already 9,558 reviews.
Regardless of any links between perception, data and lived experience, people who broke into cars near tourist hubs like Fisherman’s Wharf and viral videos like the one documenting a man riding out of a Walgreens forced officials to respond.
In late September 2021, the mayor, along with the San Francisco Police Chief, unveiled the organized theft investigation and deterrence strategy. The initiative will expand the city’s retail crime unit from two to five officers. The new staff will coordinate with other law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol and off-duty officers employed as private security companies through the city’s 10B program. The city will also triple the number of unarmed community ambassadors, from eight to 25.
Mauroff, executive director of the Pre-Trial Program, said that while the police had a role to play in deterring and combating shoplifting, he advocated solutions that were not only led by the police, but rather took into account the rehabilitative needs and racial differences of individuals in criminal law. system into consideration.
He noted that during pandemic shutdowns, therapeutic services such as anger management classes that had previously proved useful were only available remotely, making them largely inaccessible to most of the diversion program’s clientele, especially those who are insecure in the home.
“We must not be driven by hysteria so we can find solutions,” Mauroff said.
Charles Ryan, a caseworker at the Pretrial Diversion Project, claimed that large companies such as Walgreens also had a role to play.
Ryan lives in a San Francisco community that has already gone through a Walgreens closure, blamed for “expanding” theft. In the summer of 2019, Walgreens closed its store in Bayview Hunters Point, a historic black working class area located along San Francisco Bay.
Ryan said he had seen twenty people in the store, but regretted that he had not witnessed any efforts by management to make the pharmacy a respected part of society – such as training his staff on implicit bias and keeping the place clean. However, black customers would be followed around the store by employees who assumed they had come to steal, he said.
“You did not have a manager pushing the line for how they treat people who come in,” Ryan said. “No one was there to do the high-pressure washing and keep it clean, so people said, ‘We just go in there and take what we want. They do not treat us properly and have never done anything for the neighborhood.
“Closing the other places is bad because they are closing someone in neighborhoods where people have to walk across town to get what they need,” he continued. “You just close it because a few people stole.”