The walk from her Glen Park home to the BART station takes Carolyn Deacy no more than 10 minutes, but sometimes she drives part of the way. She’s not lazy — she’s scared.
“I used to walk home from BART at night all the time,” Deacy said. “I’m a lot more wary now … I just don’t feel as safe as I used to.”
Deacy said she remembers the “scary” daytime hostage-style robbery of a local store owner that put Glen Park on edge in 2008. And lately, she has been put ill at ease by muggings, some of them “organized” and violent.
Yet statistically, she is safer: Crime statewide has been steadily declining over the past decade, and robberies and assaults in San Francisco are down nearly one-third in that time, according to a report from the City Controller’s Office. Yet more and more residents of The City feel otherwise.
Less than half of San Franciscans think it’s safe to walk alone at night in their neighborhoods, according to statistics published in the biannual City Survey Report, which was released in mid-May.
“Perception is reality,” Police Chief Greg Suhr said regarding why city residents might feel less safe despite a drop in overall crime.
In particular, residents of the Castro and Mission districts are more on guard; feelings of safety declined by 16 and 13 percent, respectively, according to the survey, which polled 3,668 city residents by telephone, mail and computer in February.
Smartphones appear to be a key culprit. Robberies of the mobile devices now constitute half of all property crimes locally, and there are more and more tales of broad-daylight thefts. The near-ubiquity of $500 to $800 cellphones — which also have high black-market value — means that nearly everyone is a target, and it’s even easier when people are distracted by their devices.
“That’s cash [for a thief] … and it’s scary because these robberies are often very brazen,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose district includes the Castro, Noe Valley and Glen Park, where Mayor Ed Lee lives. “There is a reduced feeling of security in these neighborhoods. It’s a very big deal.”
Other trends across The City appear to be holding steady. Residents in southeastern, low-income neighborhoods such as the Bayview and Visitacion Valley feel the least safe, while people living in west side neighborhoods such as the Richmond and Sunset feel most at ease.
Men and Latinos also reported increased feelings of vulnerability, the report said. There was an 11 percent drop — a “major decline,” according to the report — in males feeling safe near their homes, while all minorities felt less safe than white residents. Of all races, Latino residents expressed the greatest concern.
The Police Department has had chronic staffing shortages — not since 2009 has the force had its City Charter-mandated 1,971 sworn officers on duty. There currently are about 1,750 officers on patrol, and a reduced police presence might contribute to citizens’ unease.
Then there are the cellphones.
Suhr and others have been pushing cellphone companies to allow users to “brick,” or remotely disable, their devices when they are reported stolen. That would remove the incentive to pilfer The City’s most-swiped item.
In the past, where women may have been targeted for thefts for purses or jewelry, cellphones provide an “equal opportunity” crime target that might explain men’s feelings of vulnerability.
As for Latino residents feeling unsafe, most of The City’s gang members are Norteño, Sureño or MS-13 — meaning an innocent bystander who is Latino is more likely to be mistaken for a gang member and fall victim to violence, Suhr said.
Police staffing levels will be up to 2009 numbers by 2018, Suhr said. In the meantime, citizens might need to look to themselves to feel safe.
“People do need to be more aware of their surroundings,” said Sister Eve Volution of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Castro-based collective of activists in drag has in recent years restarted its STOP Violence project, and its advice is simple: Be alert. Eve Volution tells the story of the burly personal trainer who became a target for a device theft while texting and walking.
“Crime is pretty much the same year over year,” Eve Volution said. “But it seems like there are more muggings, and they are more coordinated. … When that kind of information gets out, it tends to scare people.”