In 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 brazen shoplifting attempts at Walgreens locations in the city – including one that appeared to show a man riding his bike out of a store with a trash bag filled with stolen items – had put it at the center of a heated national debate over fears of a pandemic-induced “crime wave”.
To critics of San Francisco’s leaders, the closures seemed to confirm a narrative long held by people outside of the city and increasingly by those within: that San Francisco is a lawless place where officials turn a blind eye to crime, to local businesses’ detriment. Political leaders, including Mayor London Breed, pointed at Walgreens. “When a place is not generating revenue and when they’re saturated – Walgreens has a lot of Walgreens locations all over the city – I do think there are other factors that come into play,” Breed told reporters.
But neighborhood representatives and advocates for people caught in the legal system paint a more complex picture of Walgreens’ role in San Francisco and the city’s struggles with shoplifting in recent years.
They described Walgreens stores as essential places where San Franciscans can get staple foods at a reasonable price and pick up medication and other last-minute essentials. “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 of the historically Latino Mission District, on San Francisco’s board of supervisors. The neighborhood’s Walgreens, which closed on 11 November, sat on a bustling stretch of Mission Street, surrounded by clothing stores, banks, and locally owned eateries. On a Tuesday afternoon in the weeks before it was closing, the store was lively with seniors picking up essentials and residents waiting to be called up to the pharmacy counter.
Many shoppers hop off the nearby bus lines to get to the Walgreens, making it a convenient stop in a high-traffic area where parking can be abysmal, Safai said. The foot traffic from nearby shops feeds the Walgreens and vice versa, making the drugstore an important piece of the neighborhood’s retail ecosystem.
Safai said he had been working with police and community organizations to address retail crime in his neighborhood. “For the most egregious, there has to be consequences. People have to know they can’t walk into the store with a garbage bag,” he said.
“But we’re not gonna incarcerate our way out of this problem,” he cautioned. “We have to redirect people to the right path.”
‘Walgreens was essential’
Gina Mullens’ father has been working for Walgreens for more than 40 years, first in the Mission District and then in the East Bay. She recalls going to company picnics growing up and would opt to shop at a Walgreens over CVS because of her family’s long history with the company. “Walgreens is a big, big part of my life. It sounds corny but it fed my family.”
Mullens now lives in the East Bay, where she sees her local Walgreens showing telltale signs of theft concerns. More and more items are locked behind plexiglass, she said, and some shelves are consistently empty. While she’s frustrated by the wait required to get a store employee to unlock the products, she doesn’t judge those who shoplift from the store out of necessity. “I understand tough times don’t judge anybody. Do what you gotta do to feed your family.”
Before moving across the Bay Bridge, Mullens worked in public housing near the Walgreens location on Cesar Chavez Street in the Mission District. She got flu shots for her four children there and would pick up kitchen staples for lower prices than at her local chain grocery store. The location is scheduled to close on 17 November.
“That Walgreens was essential, at least for my family,” Mullens said of the Mission District location. “It’s closer than Safeway, has more items than the corner store, and they have a pharmacy attached. It’s been a staple so to see them shutting down in neighborhoods that really need them is heartbreaking.”
Mullens works for San Francisco’s Pretrial Diversion Project, a non-profit that looks to divert people from shoplifting. The program helps participants stay on top of court appearances and orders and connects them to employment, addiction, and other services that can prevent them from catching a new charge. Mullens supervises staffers and works with the groups that provide services to the non-profit’s clients.
The organization’s CEO, David Mauroff, said there was no denying that people were stealing from drug stores, clothes shops, and out of cars. Mauroff, like many San Franciscans, has a Walgreens connection. “I don’t know how many times we’ve run in to get cold medicine ’cause our kid couldn’t sleep,” he said of the chain’s Excelsior location.
Mauroff has seen people shoplift at his local store. But he worries that high-profile incidents obscure the decrease in property crime the city reported in 2020. And while he hasn’t seen any increase in clients coming to the organization, he has noticed that hotspots for theft in San Francisco have changed over the course of the pandemic.
“There are less tourists and people driving to work – that’s where the break-ins were in the past. But because of Covid, people had to find another target, and unfortunately it became Walgreens and other retail stores.”
‘We can’t be driven by hysteria’
Crime data is complex and often incomplete, and a comprehensive picture of what happened in the city during the pandemic is still emerging. San Francisco has long recorded higher levels of property crime than other California cities, but recent data suggests that, while some categories of crime have increased, others have fallen.
Larceny, the category that shoplifting falls under, appears to have decreased from 2019 to 2020, bringing the overall property crime down with it, according to the San Francisco police department’s crime dashboard. Offenses including rape and robbery also decreased in 2020, a San Francisco Chronicle analysis of recent FBI data indicated. Homicides, motor vehicle thefts, and burglaries all increased, according to that same FBI data.
The decrease in shoplifting appears to be continuing in 2021. In 2020 there were 12,266 reported incidents and about 380 arrests for the offense, according to data from the San Francisco district attorney’s office. As of the end of October 2021, about 200 people have been arrested for larceny or theft this year and there have been 9,221 reports. By the end of September last year, there were already 9,558 reports.
Regardless of any disconnects between perception, data and lived experience, people breaking into cars near tourist hubs like Fisherman’s Wharf and viral videos like the one documenting a man riding his bike out of a Walgreens forced officials to respond.
In late September 2021, the mayor, along with the San Francisco police chief, unveiled the organized retail theft investigation and deterrence strategy. The initiative will expand the city’s retail crime unit from two to five officers. The new hires will coordinate with other law enforcement bodies including the California highway patrol and off-duty officers hired as private security by businesses through the city’s 10B program.The city will also triple the number of unarmed community ambassadors, from eight to 25.
Mauroff, the pre-trial program’s CEO, said that while police had a role to play in deterring and addressing shoplifting, he advocated for solutions that were not solely led by police but rather took the rehabilitative needs of individuals and racial disparities in the criminal justice system into account.
He noted that during pandemic lockdowns, therapeutic services like anger management classes that had previously proven helpful were only available remotely, making them largely inaccessible for most of the diversion program’s clientele, especially those who are housing insecure.
“We have to not be driven by hysteria so we can find solutions,” Mauroff said.
Charles Ryan, a case manager at the Pretrial Diversion Project, argued that large corporations like Walgreens, too, had a role to play.
Ryan lives in a San Francisco community that has already gone through a Walgreens closure blamed on “rampant” theft. In the summer of 2019, Walgreens closed its store in Bayview Hunters Point, a historically Black, working-class neighborhood that sits along the San Francisco Bay.
Ryan said hehad seen people shoplift at the store but lamented he hadn’t witnessed any effort from management to make the drugstore a respected piece of the community – for instance, training their employees on implicit bias and keeping the location clean. Black customers would, however, be followed around the store by employees who assumed they had come to steal, he said.
“You didn’t have a manager pushing the line on how they treat people coming in,” Ryan said. “No one was there to do the pressure wash and keep it clean, so people said, ‘We just go in there and take whatever we want. They don’t treat us right and never did anything for the neighborhood.’
“Closing the other locations is bad because they’re closing some in neighborhoods where people would have to go across town to get what they need,” he continued. “You’re just closing it because a few people were stealing.”