People in and around San Francisco are worried about crime. Very worried.
In a poll conducted in March, 65 percent of respondents said that they avoid traveling to Bay Area downtowns like San Francisco’s because of concerns about crime. Fewer than half of San Francisco respondents to the poll said they feel that the Bay Area is a safe place to live.
This perception of San Francisco as crime-ridden has fueled significant policy decisions in recent months. Last December, Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood to “to disrupt the illegal activity in the neighborhood” — though text messages between Breed and the chief of police suggest that Breed’s motivation may have in part been born of a desire not to see homeless people while on her lunch break.
It is also one of the main reasons why San Francisco’s progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin is in danger of being recalled in June. The campaign to recall Boudin has alternatingly portrayed the district attorney as dismissive of crime victims, particularly Asian-American victims, and uninterested in the criminals responsible for wreaking havoc on the city’s streets. “Criminals know they will be let off the hook without consequences,” campaign literature from the pro-recall group Safer SF Without Boudin reads. “As car break-ins, burglaries, and overdoses reach a crisis level in San Francisco, Boudin’s refusal to hold serial offenders and drug dealers accountable is putting more of us at risk.”
The panic over crime is remarkable for a simple reason: San Francisco is empirically one of the safest major cities in the country. According to FBI data, violent crime in San Francisco is at its lowest rate since 1985, the year the bureau started tracking violent crime numbers. The city’s murder rate is among the lowest in the country for major cities, even after rising during the pandemic as it did elsewhere. Motor vehicle thefts also rose during the pandemic, but then stabilized. Between 2019 to 2021, the rates of rape, robbery, assault, and crime overall in the city actually decreased.
There is similarly little data to support the notion that Boudin’s office systematically refuses to charge criminals. A recent review by Mission Local found that last year Boudin actually filed charges at a higher rate than any San Francisco district attorney since 2011. Though his sentencing philosophy differs from his predecessors, Boudin charges like a fairly typical DA — and does so despite the incompetence of the city’s police department, which solves fewer than 9 percent of reported offenses while simultaneously arresting black people at a higher rate than any other major California city.
To blame or credit Boudin personally for the crime rate in San Francisco is questionable to begin with. Just two months after Boudin was sworn in, the city was plunged into interlocking crises triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which correlated with a spike in violent crime across the country. In Sacramento, where the district attorney’s office is led by tough-on-crime Republican-turned-Independent Anne Marie Schubert, the murder rate increased by more than it did in San Francisco.
“There’s no causal relationship between the crime rate and who the DA is,” Lara Bazelon, law professor at San Francisco University and chair of the district attorney office’s Innocence Commission, said. “You’re missing a lot of steps in there. It just seems like people have passed over all those steps and have chosen to obsess about the DA because of who he is.”
Business vs. Boudin
Last summer, Boudin was the target of two separate recall campaigns. The first, spearheaded by former Republican candidate for mayor Richie Greenberg, failed to make the ballot. A second campaign succeeded in making the ballot, but only after the San Rafael–based political action committee called Neighbors for a Better San Francisco poured, according to Boudin campaign spokesperson Julie Edwards, roughly a million dollars into paid signature gathering.
Since making the ballot, Neighbors for a Better San Francisco has continued to fuel the recall effort. Its largest donor is hedge fund manager William Oberndorf, a registered Republican who in 2020 alone gave $2.5 million to Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund and has donated more than $600,000 to the PAC. Neighbors for a Better San Francisco has also raked in donations from a roster of Silicon Valley luminaries and venture capitalists including Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, investment banker Steven Merrill, and billionaire angel investor Chris Larsen. This avalanche of interest from the wealthy has meant that the recall has outraised Boudin’s campaign by nearly a three-to-one margin.
Boudin’s life story is, as Bazelon put it, “morbidly fascinating.” Boudin’s parents were both members of the Weather Underground, and both were jailed for murder for serving as getaway drivers in the Brink’s robbery in Rockland County, New York, when Boudin was just two years old. Boudin was raised in Chicago by adoptive parents, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes fellow, got a law degree at Yale, and joined the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in 2012. He credits visiting his parents in prison growing up as helping form his understanding of the carceral system.
Boudin campaigned for district attorney as a progressive reformer, and in his two-plus years in office, for better or worse, that’s exactly what he’s been. Days after being sworn in, Boudin fired seven prosecutors, then moved in quick succession to end prosecutors’ use of cash bail, restrict his office’s use of sentencing enhancements, establish the Innocence Commission to review possible wrongful convictions, and sponsor a resolution to prevent the city from hiring police officers with prior records of misconduct. When the COVID-19 crisis hit San Francisco, Boudin reduced the city’s population of incarcerated people by 25 percent. He later became the first ever San Francisco district attorney to file homicide charges against a city police officer.
“Chesa Boudin is one of the rare public officials who is doing what he said he would,” Edwards said. “The policies he’s criticized on, the actions he’s taking as district attorney — this is what he said he would do.”
Here, the numbers are instructive. Under Boudin’s leadership, the DA’s office has increasingly routed people charged with crimes into diversion programs rather than imprisoned them. This year, the office’s successful diversion rate has exceeded its conviction rate — an approach designed to reduce the prison population not just now but also in the future.
“These traditional status quo, tough-on-crime responses are contrary to public safety,” San Francisco public defender Peter Calloway said. “Prison is criminogenic. It increases the likelihood that a person will commit crime.”
It’s this decarceral approach that threatens the likes of Neighbors for a Better San Francisco.
The policing and criminalization of working-class and homeless people is essential to the functioning of a city as economically unequal as San Francisco, where developers and homeowners rely on the state to help push poverty out of sight and keep property values rising and neighborhoods gentrifying.
A share of the city’s economic elite may have another practical reason to support the recall: Boudin has gone after corporate malfeasance. Shortly after he took office two years ago, Boudin launched an Economic Crimes Against Workers Unit in the district attorney’s office to prosecute companies for wage theft, immigration-related workplace retaliation, and failure to comply with the state’s unfair competition laws. Two months later, Boudin sued DoorDash for illegally misclassifying workers as independent contractors. Last year, his office and Los Angeles district attorney George Gascón’s office filed a similar suit against Handy.com.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of the recall campaign’s most prominent proponents are directly invested in companies like DoorDash that classify workers as independent contractors and have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in California to retain that right. In early April, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Ron Conway, an early investor in DoorDash, sent a fundraising email claiming that crime rates in San Francisco were at “record highs” on behalf of Neighbors for a Better San Francisco in December. Garry Tan, the second-biggest donor to the PAC supporting the recall, is invested in Instacart.
The focus on crime and the Boudin recall serves another purpose for the wealthy, too: it distracts from the measures that meaningfully reduce crime, like addressing San Francisco’s housing and affordability crises. Bazelon said:
I would feel safer if the mayor and the various agencies under her control put time and money and resources into harm reduction programs, substance abuse treatment, and building housing for homeless people rather than declaring war on the Tenderloin to score some cheap political points. . . . But the idea that the DA is a dumping ground for everything that you see on the street that makes you uncomfortable is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the DA’s job is.
Battle for the Bay
Given limited polling, the state of the race is difficult to ascertain. A poll commissioned by recall organizers in March found the recall campaign with a wide lead, 68 to 32 percent, though a February poll of voters in the eastern half of the city found that support for the recall was tied.
If Boudin is successfully recalled, San Franciscans wouldn’t immediately be able to vote for his successor. Instead, Breed — who has been critical of Boudin and publicly flirted with endorsing the recall — would appoint his successor. Breed was in a similar position in 2019 when she appointed Boudin’s predecessor, Suzy Loftus, a former president of the San Francisco Police Commission who then lost to Boudin in the next election.
“It’d be a disaster,” Calloway said. “I definitely do not think that people fully appreciate the harm that will come from that outcome.”
Over the next month the recall effort will be a battle for the soul of San Francisco — a test of the influence of the region’s entrepreneurial elite and the strength of its progressive community.
“I would like to believe that San Francisco is a progressive city that lives its values, and if this recall is successful, it’s going to put a lie to that,” Bazelon said. “And what it’s going to signal is that people are happy to say they’re progressive until they actually have some skin in the game. That will be really disappointing if that’s true.”