Boarding Muni's 5-Fulton on Market Street. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Boarding Muni’s 5-Fulton on Market Street. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

San Francisco transit officials are crediting a public awareness campaign and more police officers assigned to patrol buses and trains for a decline in crime on Muni, including an 88 percent reduction in smartphone thefts.

“I can feel fairly comfortable in saying it was some combination of those two things that really made it happen,” said Ed Reiskin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

An SFMTA spokesman said overall crime on the Municipal Railway has dropped 36 percent since May:

Robberies alone have decreased by over 75 percent, down 10 to 15 robberies per month compared to the 50 to 60 robberies that were occurring prior to additional police support. Additionally, crimes on routes with the highest incidents of crime have decreased by 36 percent.

Mobile devices have been the target in the vast majority of robbery cases, which is why the city also launched the “Eyes Up, Phones Down” anticrime and public awareness campaign last August.

That dramatic rise in electronic-device theft was seen both locally and nationwide. Reiskin says that single category of crime reversed Muni’s previous “steady progress” in reducing crime.

The ubiquitous use of smartphones on transit and everywhere else has also had an apparent impact in reducing public awareness of crime happening nearby. For instance: last September’s fatal shooting of 20-year-old Justin Valdez, a San Francisco State student who was randomly targeted and shot to death while exiting a Muni train. Surveillance video showed the suspect waving his gun around on the train, failing to catch the attention of riders glued to their smartphones.

In November, Mayor Ed Lee, Police Chief Greg Suhr and Reiskin held a press conference on the Embarcadero to announce the “Eyes Up” campaign, and said a federal Department of Homeland Security grant would allow them to put more cops on Muni.

“Having more uniformed police officers on buses has proved to be a tremendous deterrent to crime as evidenced by the dramatic drop in robberies on Muni all over the city,” Suhr said in a statement. “We can be even more successful if riders would be more aware of their surroundings when using electronic devices.”

Lee has said his goal is to reduce Muni crime to zero, which “sounds impossible to do, but we need to have a goal like that in order to challenge everybody to pay attention.”

While smartphone thefts have declined on Muni, that’s not the case citywide, according to a report in the latest SF Weekly. It notes that in the early months of 2014, “iPhone theft accounted for 67 percent of all robberies. It shows no sign of abating.” That information was provided by the office of District Attorney George Gascón, who has prioritized “ending the alarming number of violent robberies involving electronic devices.”

Reiskin expressed disappointment that the state Senate last week failed to pass, by just two votes, a bill by state Sen. Mark Leno, pushed by Gascón, that would  force electronics manufacturers to install theft-deterring technologies, namely a kill switch that would disable a device.

“I hope he’ll be able to bring that back. I think that, in the long run, would absolutely have a very significant effect,” said Reiskin.

Leno blamed the bill’s narrow defeat on heavy opposition from the wireless industry because it would affect the profits of smartphone companies. SF Weekly reporter Rachel Swan summed up just how lucrative smartphone theft is:

Smartphones represent a $69-billion-a-year industry in the U.S., the DA notes. About half of that — some $30 billion a year — comes from replacing lost or stolen devices, according to a 2012 report by the mobile security firm Lookout. Carriers harvest an additional $7.8 billion annually by selling insurance to consumers, to protect them from crime that the carriers themselves could have prevented.

Reflecting on those statistics, Gascón is convinced that telecom companies don’t just benefit from theft; they build it into their business model.

“This is about a technological deterrence,” Leno said. “We need to get into the minds of those who have shifted their activities to these new crimes that it’s not worth it.”

Leno hopes to bring the bill back for a second vote by May 31.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 


Bryan Goebel

Bryan Goebel is a reporter focused on transportation and housing issues. He was previously the editor of Streetsblog San Francisco, and an anchor/editor at KCBS Radio. He's a lifelong Californian and has also worked at radio stations in Barstow, Redding and Sacramento.

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