Many visitors read about crime in San Francisco and wonder just how safe it is to travel here.
There are many opinions on this, and I have my own after living here for many years, but I also wanted to give a more objective and balanced view of this subject.
I collected data on San Francisco crime (and other cities for comparison) from local police department and FBI statistics.
It's not a pleasant subject, but I think it's important for someone who lives here to share candid information on this issue, along with some safety tips.
Hint: it's not as bad as you've heard...except for the car break-ins!
Also, San Francisco's woes with dirty streets, drug addicts and homelessness have been in the news a lot, too. More on that later.
I want our visitors to have a great experience when they travel here. And with a few safeguards, travelers can enjoy the city without undue worry.
Most likely, nothing will happen! But forewarned is forearmed. Sorry for the morbid statistics that follow;)
How have COVID and other developments this year affected San Francisco's crime rate?
Here are the SF Police Department crime stats for Jan through Sept 13, 2020, compared to the same time period last year:
Homicide: up 37.9%
Robbery: down 17.7%
Rape: down 52.1%
Burglary: up 42.3%
Arson: up 53.4%
Car theft: up 32.3%
And the aggravating car break-ins? Since the mid-March lock down, the number of auto burglaries has dropped roughly by half; not too surprising.
For more details, updated weekly, see the SFPD website.
First of all, how dangerous in San Francisco? Looking at crime rates can help answer that.
Important aspects of SF crime:
Of course, being a city, San Francisco's crime rate is going to be worse than what you'll find in suburban or rural areas, but it's sort of low to intermediate when compared with other U.S. cities.
And the crime rate in San Francisco varies tremendously by neighborhood, as you would also expect.
There are a handful of areas that seem to produce the lion's share of the crime statistics. Some of these areas are near (but not in) prime tourist spots and others are in areas that tourists rarely see.
Here are the neighborhoods that generate the most crime reports:
Here is a map that shows the relative incidence of violent crime in these areas.
I chose robberies to illustrate it.
The Tenderloin District of San Francisco has the unfortunate honor of being the worst in the city for both violent crime and property crime.
There's a concentration of seedy residence hotels, and many low income residents, along with a higher incidence of prostitution, drug dealing and drug use.
In spite of this, in the daytime even the Tenderloin isn't particularly dangerous in terms of violent crime. At night, it's a different story.
Is there any reason to go there? There are some good restaurants in this area, and some popular music venues. The Great American Music Hall and the Warfield Theater are in the Tenderloin.
Also, the San Francisco theater district near Union Square sits on the edge of the Tenderloin; the Curran Theater and the Geary Theater (ACT performs there) are two major theaters located about a block west of Union Square.
Many of San Francisco's most popular hotels are in the Union Square area, just a few blocks from the Tenderloin, but the crime doesn't seem to spill over.
Where is the Tenderloin? It sits in kind of a wedge where Market Street and Van Ness Avenue come together. The unofficial borders are Market, Van Ness, Geary and Taylor Streets.
Union Square is a few blocks east and the Civic Center area (SF City Hall, SF Symphony, & SF Opera House) are a couple of blocks west.
Please don't be freaked out by this map! I included it to illustrate that this is not a great area to wander around in at night.
Western Addition: the main attraction in this area is Japantown, several city blocks of Japanese restaurants and shops, most of which are in the three enclosed malls. Even though this area isn't the greatest, Japantown itself is generally very safe.
Getting there: there are buses that stop right at Japantown, and there are two parking garages in Japantown that are safe. See Japantown for more info.
The historic Fillmore Auditorium, and the Fillmore District, are also in this area, as well as some popular restaurants like State Bird Provisions.
The Mission District. This neighborhood is a lively, interesting area, mostly Hispanic, with lots of popular restaurants and cool shops. It used to have a higher crime rate, but it's currently "in transition". It's been attracting artists, writers, and, dare I say, hipsters, and is starting to gentrify.
There is a lot of night life here, and it isn't all that dangerous in the evening because of all the people out and about, but later at night, and in less-frequented areas like alleys and side streets, it could be a problem.
Getting there: street parking is challenging, but there are parking lots and garages available. Just try to pick one that isn't too isolated.
BART stations: the two BART stations in the area are not very safe at night, unfortunately: 16th & Mission and 24th & Mission (16th & Mission is worse).
Market Street/South of Market. Not all of Market Street is sketchy.
The area from Powell Street (where the cable cars start) down to the Ferry Building is not that bad. The rough area is Market Street between 5th and 10th Streets.
The Orpheum Theater and the Civic Center BART & Muni station are located in that area, on Market between 7th and 8th Streets.
The Bayview/Hunters Point area is a lower-income, residential and industrial area not generally visited by tourists. Candlestick Park, the baseball and football stadium (torn down in 2015), was is in this area.
General tips about venturing into these areas:
Violent crime does tend to concentrate in certain neighborhoods, while most of the city is relatively free of it.
Here's a map showing all the robberies in the entire city during the first six months of 2019.
Data source for above 3 maps: the city has a mapping system for reported incidents of crime. See city crime map for current stats.
Before you decide not to come here (!), remember that over 800,000 people live here, and that San Francisco had about 25 million visitors in 2018, so the numbers aren't as bad as they look. The odds of being one of those numbers are really very slight!
Based on the map stats, there were around 1400 robberies in the first six months of 2019. And there were around 12.5 million visitors during that same period, so there was about 1 robbery for every 10,000 visitors. And most of these robberies did not involve tourists, so the odds are much lower than that.
I included this map to show the variation among the neighborhoods. And most of these crimes happen after dark, as you would guess, and many involve drug use and drug dealing, which doesn't affect visitors directly.
That being said, there have been several, high-profile assaults on residents recently by mentally-ill, homeless people which have highlighted the apparent inability or unwillingness of the city to protect its residents from their aggressive behavior. The mentally ill have to have eight episodes in a year of being found to be a danger to themselves or other people before they can be forced into treatment.
To read about some of the details, here's an article about the recent assaults in the SF Chronicle.
Another interesting article discussing the high rate of recidivism among SF criminals and the low incarceration rate.
You're not likely to be mugged on San Francisco buses and trams, but there is a problem with sticky fingers. Be especially observant during busy times of day, when lots of people are packed on.
Keep your purse close to your body, in front of you, and guys, keep your wallet in a front pocket. Keep an eye on mobile phones in purses or pockets. Thieves take advantage of closely packed conditions and purses sitting unguarded.
Sneaky fingers exploring your purse or pockets are much more common on public transit than an open snatch and grab of purses or mobile phones.
The exception: BART passengers.
BART is having an upsurge in robberies with people having their mobile phones or laptops grabbed out of their hands. This typically happens to someone sitting near the door; just as the train is about to leave, the thief grabs the device and runs out of the car, and the car leaves the station.
So be aware while using mobile devices and laptops on BART (or maybe avoid using them if you can, especially while the train is in the station).
Here's a recent article about BART robberies, and which stations are the worst.
Even though the odds are very low of being a victim of violent crime here, unfortunately there is a very high risk of a car break-in. Another good reason to use public transportation.
Auto burglaries have skyrocketed over the past few years and have become an epidemic. Residents are plagued by these, as well.
In 2017, there was a record 31,000 auto burglaries in the city; 2018 was a little better, at 27,000. 2019 was a bit lower at 23,000, but that's still very high. And a discouraging statistic is that only 2% of these resulted in an arrest. And when they are arrested, the sentences are light; not much of a deterrence and very frustrating for us locals!
No wonder San Francisco has the highest rate of property crimes of any U.S. city. And now with our new District Attorney, who campaigned for less incarceration, I doubt things will get better.
According to the police, most of these are committed by organized gangs; one guy does a quick break-in and another guy is waiting in the getaway car. They're especially hoping for laptops and tablets, so they grab any backpacks or bags they see.
The solution: don't leave anything valuable or visible in your car. Unfortunately, the thieves target cars in the tourist areas.
Good to know: some thieves now have scanners that can pick up Bluetooth signals from electronic devices in the car, so hiding a phone in the glove compartment or a laptop in the trunk won't protect it. You can block the Bluetooth signal by powering down the device or putting it in airplane mode, but it's better not to leave it there at all. See more details on the wired.com article.
Hot spots for car break-ins: Union Square, Fisherman's Wharf, Embarcadero, Golden Gate Park, Lombard Street, Palace of Fine Arts, Lands End and the Cliff House are prime spots for break-ins.
Data source: the SF Chronicle has an up-to-date map of auto burglaries in the city. See SF car break-in map for current numbers.
Overall, I don't think San Francisco is a particularly dangerous city.
There is crime here, but comparing SF's crime stats with other U.S. cities puts it in perspective.
I used FBI data for 2017 for ease of comparison.
U.S. Cities. Homicide rate per 100,000 residents
New York City
But San Francisco (at 6.35) doesn't do too well compared to many European cities:
But then there's #1 for 2017: Caracas, Venezuela, at 122.
As you've probably heard, there is a huge problem with homelessness in San Francisco. This is a big topic that I'm not going to attempt to cover here, but the subject often comes up in connection with crime.
In general, the homeless in SF aren't dangerous. Many suffer from mental illness, drug addiction or alcoholism (or some combination of these).
Occasionally some can be belligerent, but generally they are not a threat. The problem is more that large numbers of people living and sleeping (and other things) in the streets have created a health hazard for both residents and visitors.
The city hands out around 400,000 hypodermic needles per month to drug users (yes, per month) and lots of these get thrown into the street. The problem gets worse every year, but the elected officials have been unable to handle it. Nuff said.
But many of the homeless are concentrated in areas away from the tourist areas.
Exceptions: visitors heading into the Tenderloin/Mid Market areas for the theater and concerts will see them, and a number can be seen in the Union Square area as well.
There seem to be fewer in the Fisherman's Wharf area, and not many at all in the western areas of the city near Lands End, the Cliff House and Ocean Beach.
So don't worry, be happy...and savvy. Have a great time in San Francisco!