by Xinhua writer Ye Zaiqi
SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 28 (Xinhua) -- San Francisco, a major resort city on the U.S. west coast, is grappling with an epidemic of vehicle break-ins that have gone rampant for years, which could undermine the city's tourism prospect.
The rising number of smash-and-grab car burglaries have been plaguing popular San Francisco neighborhoods in recent days, which has frustrated both tourists and many locals alike.
The latest statistics from San Francisco District Attorney's Office (SFDAO) showed that more than 30,000 car break-ins occurred in San Francisco in 2017 alone.
The figure was almost three times more than that in 2011, when there were fewer than 11,000 cases of auto burglary.
The SFDAO data revealed a shocking fact that only 13 cases of car break-ins led to arrests, though victims filed more than 81,000 online reports of auto burglaries to police in San Francisco over the past seven years.
Police authorities said the city witnessed a daily average of 85 auto break-ins last year, with the pavement often littered with broken glass shards.
In San Francisco's popular scenic spots, auto thieves targeted foreign tourists who were fascinated with the city's sunshine and beaches, but often left their stuff in cars.
Last year, a female tourist from China parked her rented car outside a book store in downtown San Francisco, only to find a window of her car smashed and her luggage grabbed away after she came out of the book store.
She said she had been cautioned about social security problems in the United States before she left China, but she had never thought it was even worse than she had imagined.
Car thieves not only targetted foreign tourists as "easy prey", but also targeted local residents and even a team of working journalists.
A local TV news outlet said their news vehicles were not immune to the rampant auto burglary.
The reporters of the TV news outlet cited one day in 2016 when their news crew parked their truck at a roadside in downtown San Francisco to grab some lunch.
A few minutes later, the front window of their vehicle was smashed and a briefcase in the truck, with some contents worth of 5,000 U.S. dollars were stolen.
Analysts said many factors are behind the epidemic of car break-ins, but three causes could be attributed to the widespread smash-and-grab.
San Francisco attracts tens of millions of visitors each year. In 2017, about 25 million people visited the city, where they spent an estimated 9 billion dollars.
Foreign visitors often left their bags and sometimes valuables inside their vehicles for the convenience of sightseeing. As a result, they became victims of auto burglary.
"I have seen a lot of tourists car-rental break ins at the Golden Gate Park and Lincoln Park," a twitter user said on his account.
It is extremely hard to catch the car-thieves. The average smash-and-grab takes only 20 seconds but payoffs can be huge.
One tourist from another U.S. state even reported the theft of 13,000 dollars in cash from her car, according to a local media report.
Many people also attributed the widespread crime to the city's court system and a loophole in the law.
Proposition 47 (Prop 47), a ballot initiative passed into law in November 2014 in a ballot in California, reduced six nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.
Although car break-ins are still considered felonies, anyone who commits car burglary cannot be charged with felony if the value of the property taken does not meet the 950-dollar threshold set by Prop. 47. In other words, auto break-ins are often regarded as a misdemeanors instead of a crime.
Police said the suspects of auto burglary were often released even after they were caught, because no one could prove the car that was broken in had its door locked as required by Prop 47.
Some local residents who oppose Prop 47 complained that it has become "basically a get-out-of-jail-free card" for the perpetrators of car break-ins.
The problem of car thefts have become so serious and frustrating among locals that California Senator Scott Wiener is introducing another bill to close the loophole that hampers prosecutions for automobile break-ins.
He wants to drop the locked-door requirement of Prop 47, so that prosecutors can prove an auto burglary occurred by either showing that the car was locked or, alternatively, that a window was broken.
Wiener hopes the bill will make it easier to charge the suspects of car theft with a felony, thus deterring the epidemic of smash-and-grab crimes on the street of the city, whose economy depends heavily on tourism revenue.