Chesa Boudin’s recall is great for all crime-plagued cities
San Franciscans’ landslide repudiation of Chesa Boudin’s de-prosecution strategy is good for San Francisco, of course — but it’s also good for all big, dense cities such as New York. It’s even good for the climate.
Cities only work when people behave according to common standards — and the de-prosecution movement has proven that absent an external deterrent, enough people will behave hellishly to make life hell for everyone else.
San Franciscans voted to remove Boudin from office for a simple reason: He couldn’t deliver on his promise. The supposedly idealist young prosecutor promised to cut crime while declining to prosecute most “small” infractions, like shoplifting and car break-ins.
In the run-up to the recall election — which Boudin lost bigly, 60% to 40% — the press kept pointing out that San Francisco is actually not that dangerous. “Unlike in other parts of the country, homicides are not driving the anger and passions of recall advocates,” The New York Times said. “The annual number of people killed in the city has stayed within a range of 41 to 56 over the past seven years.”
This is true, largely because San Francisco, despite its high incomes and supposed progressivism, already tolerated a murder rate far higher than New York’s: adjusted for population, the equivalent of about 500 murders a year here, when New York got the level down to below 300 annually in 2017 and 2018.
Preventative policing and prosecution would have averted some of San Francisco’s “extra” murders, relative to New York’s. In December 2020, for example, two pedestrians were randomly murdered by a drunk driver in a stolen car. Yet despite the driver’s long criminal history, Boudin had refused to press charges sufficient to incarcerate him for felonies leading up to the street carnage.
San Franciscans, though, were far more fed up with crimes that didn’t put them in mortal danger but that create “just” a constant nuisance, hardship, discomfort and feeling of danger.
People don’t want to thread their way through open-air drug marts. They don’t want their cars broken into multiple times. They don’t want sidewalks, homes and storefronts blocked by aggressive panhandlers. They don’t want stores to close because of mass-scale shoplifting.
But even when Mayor London Breed (a Democrat) begged Boudin over the winter to prosecute open-air drug dealers, he attacked her as “knee-jerk,” saying the city had to address the “root causes.”
This is a point often lost even on advocates of broken-windows policing: Stopping small crimes isn’t only good because it deters bigger crimes.
It’s good because it deters small crimes. The open-air drug user who scares your children in the public park probably won’t kill you. You still don’t want your kids terrified to go to the park — so, absent public order, you’ll move.
It’s important that lefty city-by-the-bay voters got this message across to the rest of the country — even as supposedly enlightened urbanists continue to minimize urban-crime issues.
Now that the old see-no-evil line — crime is lower than it was in 1990! — has proven not to work, supposedly progressive urbanists are trying a new vein: Crime is up, but New York is still safer than other parts of the country.
Nobody disputed that — but we’re less safe than we were three years ago.
Just as important, we’re less comfortable. We don’t want to walk by people shooting up or smashing liquor bottles or punching each other. We don’t want people selling pot in Times Square.
When people live on top of each other, as they do in dense cities such as San Fran and New York, it’s critical to abide by some basic rules. If you want to smoke K2 and mutter to yourself in your own backyard, it doesn’t matter since it doesn’t bother anyone. It’s a different situation on 125th Street.
Similarly, the progressive urbanists can argue all day that despite four murders on the subways this year, you’re still statistically safer there than in a car.
People already know that.
Urban dwellers just have a more sophisticated way of thinking than reading numbers on a page as if human behavior doesn’t exist. On any given trip, you probably won’t die in a car crash. But you probably will be harassed in an enclosed train car. Which will you choose, given the option?
We won’t rebuild our urban population or our transit ridership until we admit these realities — so if the urbanists secretly love suburban sprawl and car dependency, they can keep telling us that everything is fine. Luckily, urban voters are more streetwise than the progressive minority, as San Franciscans have proven.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.