Vehicle burglaries: SF, San Mateo have differing approach

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- Many residents in San Francisco often share stories about how numerous car burglaries are in city limits with little to no punishment for offenders.

But officials in adjacent Daly City take a different approach: one that includes aggressive enforcement and stiff punishment for criminals caught breaking into vehicles.

San Francisco grapples with break-ins

On a recent visit to the Palace of Fine Arts, a group of tourists realized that all three of their rental vans have been burglarized. 

"We came from China," one of the visitors said, adding that the vehicles contained cameras, small suitcases and hand bags. "All three cars were hit and we lost something."

During one visit to the same area, car break-ins were common with new burglary victims reported every day. It may seem that burglars are targeting rental vehicles and tourists, but for those who have spent significant time in San Francisco they likely will have a story about being the victim of car burglars.

"It's scary, it's all around the city, and other cities too," said Michelle Murillo who lives in Richmond. "But I feel like (it happens) here a little bit more."

But across the county line is Daly City, which is in San Mateo County. Some neighborhood blocks are split, with one half of the street in San Francisco and the other half in Daly City. 

San Mateo takes a different approach

Daly City police Sgt. Ed Green says it is not uncommon to hear suspects nabbed in his jurisdiction to say they would rather get caught in San Francisco than in his city limits.

Said Green: "The bad guys coming into Daly City . . . realize don't get arrested in San Mateo County."

Steve Wagstaffe, the county's district attorney, said his office has made it a priority to put convicted auto burglars a priority. 

"We are an aggressive county when it comes to this problem," he said. 

The county has a no-nonsense policy for such crimes. In San Francisco, repeat offenders can serve 10 days in jail if they are found guilty whereas in San Mateo a similar crime can result in a jail sentence of six months to a year behind bars.

Said Wagstaffe: "Everybody who's caught by the police in our county . . . we are going to prosecute. We don't divert them out and there's no one free bite out of the apple."

The jurisdiction can vary between San Francisco and San Mateo, and the difference can come down to which side of the street where the cars are parked. 

"I've heard the tapes, with police where Daly City made an arrest and the person says 'I was on the wrong side of Geneva Avenue. Hence, I was in San Mateo County, I know what they're going to do to me down here,'" Wagstaffe said.

According to county records, the San Mateo district attorney prosecuted 48 cases for auto burglaries. In San Francisco, which reported 26,000 vehicle break-ins in 2015, prosecutors say they have taken action on 80 percent of the cases submitted to their office -- but that is just 1.5 percent of the total number of reported car burglaries.

"The reality is that we have a problem that has increased tremendously in the last year," said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. "And there has not been significant police action" to prevent it.

Gascon has previously singled out municipal judges, arguing that many of them do not impose enough jail time for suspects convicted of vehicle break-ins. Some judges have argued that prosecutors all too often cut deals with defendants. 

That won't happen in San Mateo.

"If they have a record, we're going to prosecute them as felonies and punish them as felonies," Wagstaffe said. "That's just our belief on how you deter a problem."

Tourists to San Francisco say the city should look to curb vehicle break-ins because in the long term, it will be the city's reputation that suffers.

"I'm from China, and every year, almost every month I'm bringing a Chinese group to come here," one tour group operator said. "And I'm going to (say) something about what happened in San Francisco in China."