Crime statistics and politics are a deadly mix – San Francisco Chronicle

When it comes to crime and politics, statistics don’t really matter. Feelings do.

Just ask San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott. Violent crimes such as homicides are up across California, but most other crimes are down.

“Statistics — I’m glad we track them, I’m glad we have them,” Scott told me. “I can tell people all day long that crime is down. But if you don’t think so and you don’t feel safe, then that has to matter to us.”

That’s the moment we’re at now in the recall campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom. Republicans in California — as they are nationally — are trying to make crime a top issue by triggering pandemic-stoked anxieties. Or as San Diego County GOP state Sen. Brian Jones titled an online video to constituents last week, “Democrat leaders abandon law-abiding families.”

Is “abandon” political hyperbole to fire up the GOP base? Of course it is. But the core message is resonating beyond them.

A new survey obtained by The Chronicle found that 65% of Californians believe that crime is getting worse, while 29% say it is the same or diminishing, according to a poll of 1,000 likely voters done by David Binder Research, the San Francisco pollster who has worked on Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s presidential campaigns.

That’s bad news for Newsom, especially in this six-week recall campaign sprint where voters will start receiving their mail-in ballots by mid-August. Likely voters are virtually split on whether to recall him, according to a Berkeley IGS poll released last week.

The good news for the governor and other Democrats who support criminal justice reform is that Californians of all political stripes don’t want a return to get-tough-on-crime solutions that many conservatives are peddling.

When asked what they thought the best way to prevent future crimes was, 61% of respondents said “rehabilitation, mental health treatment and drug treatment.” Only 29% said “incarceration.”

That represents a huge attitudinal change from the mid-1990s, when California voters approved the GOP-led “three strikes and you’re out” law, which imposed a life sentence for almost any crime if the defendant had two previous convictions.

Democrats including President Bill Clinton and then-Sen. Joe Biden led a get-tough effort in Washington via the 1994 crime bill that toughened sentences for many federal crimes. During the 2019 Democratic primary battle, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker called Biden “the architect of mass incarceration” for his support of the measure. And Gallup polls have shown for years that even when crime has dropped, Americans have still felt it was going up.

But voters are changing.

“The big difference is that people no longer buy into the 1990s narrative that the solution to crime is just to put everybody in prison,” said Seiji Carpenter, a vice president with the Binder polling firm. The survey was commissioned by Californians for Safety and Justice, which has supported many criminal justice reforms.

Nevertheless, experts say untangling the relationship between crime and politics is even tougher in the COVID-era. It has been especially challenging over the past week that has been full of crime imagery that has traveled faster than statistics, from the robbery and assault of former Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer near her home in Oakland to reports that one of Newsom’s own businesses, a Marina district wine shop, had been broken into, For the fourth time.

Here’s how some explain what’s going on:

If it bleeds, it leads: The overall crime rate in California’s 72 largest cities dropped from 2019 to 2020, according to a June study from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco think tank. But homicides increased in 2020 in many California counties, with some seeing jumps of 25% or more, according the Public Policy Institute of California.

Nationally, the trends are similar.

“We’re not in a crime wave. We’ve had a historic increase in murder. And it’s concentrated geographically,” said Jeff Asher, a crime analyst and co-founder of consulting company AH Datalytics.

Homicides play an outsize role in shaping public opinion, Asher said, even though they represent a fraction of the crimes committed.

That’s because killings often lead media coverage, said Caterina Roman, an expert on fear of crime.

“You hear it at the top of the newscast: Weather. Traffic. Violence,” said Roman, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University. “It doesn’t matter if that violence was only in two or three sections of the city. Research has shown that that these cues take on a larger than life role in how we think of our safety.”

Blaming Proposition 47: Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican running in the recall, is among the Republicans and others who blame Proposition 47 — and its Democratic supporters — for enabling crime. In 2014, California voters approved the statewide initiative that reclassified certain theft and drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors, including shoplifting of items under $950.

A 2018 study from UC Irvine, however, found “little evidence to suggest that Proposition 47 causes crime to increase in California.”

But such studies don’t tell the true story of what’s happening, said Vernon Pierson, president of the California District Attorneys Association. Retail theft and robbery are “vastly underreported,” he said. Retailers have told him that they feel such crimes will be ignored as long as less than $950 worth of merchandise was taken.

“Retailers have instructed their employees not to detain, not to get into a physical altercations” with alleged thieves. “Which means there’s no report,” said Pierson, who is the district attorney of El Dorado County.

Viral videos intensify feelings: Faulconer made a campaign stop last week in front of a shuttered Walgreens in San Francisco that he said “was closed down because of skyrocketing crime.”

“This is an example of how Gavin Newsom has failed this great city and how he’s failing our great state,” Faulconer said. “When people don’t feel safe, companies won’t make investments, families won’t feel safe out there walking on the sidewalk.”

It’s a powerful allegation, especially in the wake of a June video of a man filling a plastic garbage bag full of products, then riding his bike out of the store. The video has been seen at least 6.2 million times.

But is rampant shoplifting why Walgreen’s closed that store? Or was it an economic decision made to benefit shareholders? In 2019, the company said it planned to close 200 outlets nationally. A company spokesperson told the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in May that theft at the chain’s San Francisco outlets is four times the average as elsewhere in the country and that the company spends 35 times more on security guards in the city than elsewhere. It has closed 17 locations over the past five years in San Francisco.

Walgreens did not reply to an emailed question about whether it closed that Larkin Street location because of theft.

The answer may not matter to many voters. Nor will the story that police arrested the man they believe was responsible for that theft and several others. Ultimately, experts say, the video is much more powerful in shaping opinion, even if retail theft has actually dropped.

“It softens up the voter base, so they’re willing to believe misleading information,” said Jeffrey Butts, a research professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “And then their local official tells them that, ‘It’s because we’re letting people out of jail. We’re doing this bail reform and that’s the problem.’ (Voters) say ‘That makes sense to me.’ So they think they have an explanation.”

I asked Butts whether he had any tips for voters trying to sift through politicians invoking crime statistics.

“Sadly, I’ve dedicated my life to using facts and data to influence crime policy. I don’t think we’re any better at it than we were 30 years ago,” Butts said. He has seen both Democrats and Republicans try to use crime stats to scare voters. It’s hard to stop them because “politics was way out ahead of information and the facts.”

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joegarofoli