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In SF, Business is Booming for Private Security Guards

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

  • Private security firms are reporting increased demand from residents and businesses hoping to stave off break-ins

  • Burglaries were up 46% in September citywide, and had more than doubled year-over-year in some neighborhoods

  • Low-priority police calls had an average wait time of 78 minutes before the pandemic, and some neighborhood groups are spending hundreds per month on private guards

Alongside a surge in burglaries this year, some neighborhood groups are shelling out hundreds of dollars per month on security patrols, an expense they say they can ill afford.

Using apps like Nextdoor, some San Francisco residents areor are consideringbanding together with neighbors to split the cost of privately-hired patrols to deter burglaries, trespassing and other nuisances.

“We didn’t know what else to do, so we got together and hired a security guy, but it’s a hardship financially,” said Sonja Moelleken, a physician who lives in Russian Hill with her husband and children.

Since the COVID-19 lockdown began in mid-March, one block of Francisco St. in particular recorded a steady escalation of 911 calls that peaked in August. During that month, that blocka small cul-de-sac bordering Francisco Park, which is currently under constructionplaced 11 emergency calls, including four burglaries.

Moelleken attributed the uptick to a group of transients who took up residence in the area, one of whom lashed out aggressively when confronted. She said she obtained a restraining order against that individual, but the tension took a toll on her children.

“The kids are frightened; they can’t sleep at night,” Moelleken said. Eventually, she and a group of neighbors decided to split the cost of a guard who patrols the block in the evenings.

In San Francisco, Moelleken’s recent experience with burglaries is an increasingly common refrain.

Compared to the same period last year, burglary reports were up 46% citywide in September 2020, according to San Francisco Police Department crime statistics. Some parts of the city recorded disproportionately high increases: SFPD’s Park Station, which covers the Haight, parts of the Inner Sunset and Twin Peaks, recorded a 100% increase in September; Northern Station, extending from the Marina to Hayes Valley, saw an 80% increase; and the Tenderloin saw the highest increase in burglary reports of any area that month at 147%.

On the whole, property crime has fallen in 2020. But the drop is skewed by a disproportionate decline in auto burglaries, which accounted for roughly half of all property crime reports prior to the pandemic.

“There aren’t the multitude of tourists parking with luggage and goods in their cars…[thieves] have pivoted to home and residential burglaries,” said Cpt. Paul Yep, who heads up SFPD’s Northern Station, at a recent community meeting.

Private patrols have been a local fixture for decades through groups like the San Francisco Patrol Special Police, a non-sworn civilian force chartered by the City; a wide array of licensed security vendors; and more recently, neighborhood-specific volunteer patrols like Chinatown’s SF Peace Collective. Off-duty SFPD officers are also available for hire, and can be spotted regularly at Apple stores and other corporate retailers.

“I get at least three to four new requests every week now,” said Alan Byard, president of the SF Patrol Special Police Officers Association. “Since the pandemic and the lockdown, I’ve worked longer hours; I’m out from 7:30 at night until 5 in the morning. A lot of my new clients have been crime victims, and are basically afraid and tired of what’s going on in their neighborhood.”

Byard’s Patrol Special Police charges $65 per month per residence, and typically responds to the lower-priority calls that SFPD officers don’t get to immediately, using a police scanner to intercept those requests. In a December 2019 joint report, SFPD and the Controller’s Office found that Priority C police callsdefined as those that don’t present an immediate danger to life or propertyhad an average response time of 78 minutes. Anecdotally, some crime victims have described markedly longer wait times for some reports this year.

Although he didn’t discourage the use of private security, Cpt. Yep urged residents to first install gates and security cameras and to “be patient” in filing reports.

“Those cameras are a force multiplier: We do look at those cameras, and we send those out to the entire police force and make cases from that,” said Yep. “If hiring security is practical for you, and something you want to do as a neighborhood, then go ahead. They serve as a great deterrent, and as good witnesses from what we can tell.”

Owen Scharlotte of Nob Hill Security said he’s fielded more calls in recent months from business owners worried about an uptick in break-ins, with some of those would-be customers saying they’d already been burglarized more than once.

“These stores are looking for a cost-effective solution to break-ins,” Scharlotte said. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty. We’re getting more calls, but our closure rates on sales are lower…smaller stores, who don’t traditionally have a budget for security, don’t realize how expensive it can be.”

In the case of Francisco St., Moelleken said that the situation has improved since her block opted to hire security, but between her family’s hefty property tax bill and the overall costs of living in the City, she said it was a financial burden despite having a high household income.

Not every group of neighbors can afford extra security, she noted.

“It’s a luxury for us, but where are these people now going?” she added. “Security shouldn’t be by class or income.”

Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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