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- The tragic murder of tech founder Bob Lee has reignited the debate over crime in San Francisco.
- Residents are calling on authorities to address a growing feeling that the city has become too dangerous.
- Homicides are indeed on the rise, but the city’s violent crime rate is relatively stable.
The tragic murder of Bob Lee — a prolific tech investor and the former CTO of financial technology giant Square — has cast a harsh light on crime in San Francisco.
Data from local authorities paints a complicated picture of the city’s crime: Most violent crime statistics have remained relatively stable over the past few years, though the overall number of homicides has ticked higher. Property crime, meanwhile, has risen sharply.
Some of Lee’s friends and colleagues in the tech industry have responded to the news of Lee’s death by calling on San Francisco Mayor London Breed to do more to address what they say is a growing feeling that the city has become too dangerous in recent years. Elon Musk said in response that violent crime in the city is “horrific.”
The disconnect between San Francisco’s reasonable safety record on paper, and the lived experiences of the people who live there, has become a widely-discussed topic in the wake of Lee’s death. That tension is belied by a set of facts that don’t fit neatly into any one narrative about the city and its future.
The debate over San Francisco’s safety is unfortunately nothing new, as the city has become associated with images of sprawling homeless encampments and open-air drug markets. Last year, the issue went national amid the widely-scrutinized ousting of progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin.
Others are also speaking out, like Joshua Goldbard, CEO and Lee’s cofounder at startup MobileCoin. “As a lifelong Bay Area resident I have more questions than answers tonight,” Goldbard tweeted late Wednesday. “I don’t know how to fix what’s wrong, but I know something isn’t working in our grey city.”
SF is a relatively safe big city, but homicides are ticking higher
The total number of violent crimes is relatively low when compared to the population of San Francisco, which is over 800,000. In 2022, San Francisco’s violent crime rate was 647 per 100,000 residents, per SFPD data — a rise from 2020’s 550, and 2021’s 603, but lower than the prepandemic figure from 2019 of 696.
SFPD’s violent crime statistics include homicides, rapes, assaults and robberies.
Those stats compare relatively favorably to other big cities in the US, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, citing FBI data. Houston, for example, had a violent crime rate of 1,256 per 100,000 residents in 2020, the most recent year for which the FBI has compiled dats. San Francisco was at 550 that same year. Chicago was at 987, and Los Angeles was at 722. (New York was slightly less safe than San Francisco that year, at 578.)
Meanwhile, the homicide rate in San Francisco was 5 per 100,000 in 2020, the FBI’s crime data shows, as analyzed by the San Francisco Chronicle. That’s far below Chicago, which had the highest homicide rate that year at 29 per 100,000, and slightly better than New York City’s 6 and Los Angeles’s 9. It’s also lower than other cities of comparable sizes to San Francisco, including Columbus, Ohio.
Bob Lee, cofounder of startup MobileCoin and the former CTO of Square.
Courtesy of MobileCoin
But a look at more recent data compiled by the San Francisco Police Department shows that things are moving slowly in the wrong direction. The SFPD says that in 2019, homicides were down 11% from the year prior, but then up 17% each year in 2020 and 2021. There was no change in 2022, notably.
Those stats bring San Francisco up to 7 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2021 and 2022.
Crime is down in San Francisco and California overall
Overall, violent crime in SF has declined significantly from the 1990s, as it has across the entire state of California, a report from the San Francisco Chronicle found.
Additionally, San Francisco’s trends are similar to the rest of the country, where overall violent crime has not increased, but homicides have increased, according to a study from Pew Research Center. The US homicide rate in 2020 was 7.8 per 100,000 people, the study found.
Still, there seems to be a gap between the data and the lived reality for some in the city, as Lee’s death prompts an outpouring of people sharing their own stories of crime in San Francisco.
Mayor London Breed issued a statement to news outlets like SF Chronicle and ABC7 saying that Lee’s death is a “horrible tragedy.” Brooke Jenkins, the San Francisco district attorney, tweeted on Wednesday that there were no arrests yet, and offered a message of condolence to Lee’s family.
Additionally, the San Francisco Police Department must conclude its investigation before the DA’s office can step in, Randy Quezada, communications director at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, told Insider’s Grace Kay and Sindhu Sundar.