You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

In S.F.’s Hayes Valley, merchants are arming themselves with Tasers amid fear over break-ins

San Francisco Chronicle 10/27/2022 By Rachel Swan

Fear and frustration reached a fever pitch in San Francisco’s upscale Hayes Valley neighborhood last week, after two stores shuttered within days of each other, the owners saying that constant break-ins had driven them out.

One wrote a scalding and instantly viral LinkedIn post, lamenting that the city had descended “into chaos.” As the post ricocheted online, it seemed to embolden other merchants, some of whom saw a somber I-told-you-so moment.

On Thursday, more than a dozen of them packed a town hall meeting hosted by Hayes Valley Merchant Association President Lloyd Silverstein, with a panel that included San Francisco police Capt. Derrick Jackson and Supervisor Dean Preston.

Held at Silverstein’s eyewear boutique, Optical Underground, the event allowed business owners to mingle with officers in uniform and demand answers from city leaders.

From the onset, Silverstein, the moderator, promised to be blunt.

“Hayes Valley merchants have lost confidence that the police can protect us,” he said, turning to Jackson.

For the next 90 minutes, both the captain and supervisor found themselves in a defensive crouch, with Jackson pointing to police staff shortages — he cited recent reports that found the force at a deficit of about 500 employees as Preston stressed t he importance of community ambassadors and other alternatives to law enforcement.

During a long question-and-answer segment, store owners described an untenable situation in one of the city’s most high-profile shopping districts. In addition to theft rings that strike multiple times a week, attendees said they frequently have to clean feces off their doorsteps or deal with people behaving erratically who refuse to leave the premises.

Many said the status quo is not working. The 911 system is too slow, the store owners complained; they see few officers patrolling sidewalks, and emails to city officials go unanswered.

Some merchants said they have armed themselves.

“I have a Taser on me during service,” said George Dingle, chef de cuisine at the French bistro Monsieur Benjamin. He said the restaurant had witnessed five break-ins or disturbances in the past year. When Dingle emailed Preston’s staff, the correspondence seemed to go nowhere, and his last three messages yielded no response, he said.

Florist Kirk Wilder said Dingle isn’t the only person to carry a weapon. “One of my neighbors has a bat and a stun gun,” Wilder said. “They’re starting to take care of it themselves.”

Tension in Hayes Valley had escalated by the time Davis Smith, CEO of clothing store Cotopaxi, published his LinkedIn post this month, announcing he had closed his Hayes Valley shop after it was repeatedly ransacked.

Neighbors saw it as another illustration of unchecked retail theft that had plagued San Francisco’s downtown areas, inciting fear of social disorder and stoking online memes about a city unraveling.

Data from San Francisco Police Department shows little consistency in Hayes Valley theft or larceny patterns. The number of reports for such incidents jumped from 13 in February 2021 to 23 the next month, and 30 in April, before dropping to 21 in May.

Those numbers mean little to Wilder, who said many people in Hayes Valley have given up reporting crime, in part because the city’s systems are byzantine and confusing, but also because they’ve lost faith that police will investigate, or that political leaders will help.

“I have a gut feeling that probably 35% of crimes are reported in the neighborhood,” Wilder said.

Walking down Gough Street after the event, Preston said he was not surprised by the lack of consistency in the crime data.

“We haven’t seen a real clear trend, but that doesn’t mean individual businesses aren’t experiencing” crime, he said. Still Preston pushed back on “some of the framing” in which store owners saw isolated theft incidents as evidence of a citywide crime wave, or a need for more police.

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Susie Neilson contributed to this report.

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @rachelswan

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon