The People vs. Chesa Boudin

San Franciscans do not feel safe and secure.

A black-and-white photo of Chesa Boudin with a pained expression
Gabrielle Lurie / San Francisco Chronicle / Getty

About the author: Annie Lowrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Updated at 9:30 a.m. ET on May 20, 2022.

In December, Richie Greenberg stepped out the front door of his home in a residential, park-filled neighborhood of San Francisco to find a woman he did not recognize on his steps. She yelled at him and tried to block him from going back into his own house, pulling out a small knife and stabbing the air with it. “Walk down the steps!” he shouted at her as he called 911. “Get off of my fucking steps!”

Greenberg made it into his house shaken but safe, and the cops arrived a few minutes later. But too many San Franciscans have experienced similar incidents of late, he told me, and many have suffered worse. “Practically everyone in this city has been a victim or knows a victim,” the political commentator and failed mayoral candidate said. “People are sick and tired of the whole atmosphere of the city. It’s not fun to live here anymore.”

The responsibility for that shift, Greenberg told me, lies in no small part with Chesa Boudin, the city’s district attorney and the national face of the progressive-prosecutors movement. Boudin came into office promising to make the city safer with judicious, rather than punitive, policies: eliminating cash bail, reducing the jail population, focusing on diversion for young and first-time offenders. But Greenberg believes that Boudin has actually made the city less safe by letting criminals off. “San Francisco’s voters have been duped,” he said.

Fed up, Greenberg began collecting signatures for a recall election. Although he failed to gather enough, other activists succeeded, triggering a recall early next month. The effort has a good chance of ousting Boudin, as criminal incidents clog the local news and recall groups blanket the city in flyers and signs. A recent poll found that a solid majority of registered voters support the recall, with seven in 10 disapproving of the D.A.’s job performance.

Boudin is fending off the recall effort’s accusations as he fights for his job. Crime in San Francisco “is a pressing issue,” he told me. “It’s my priority. It’s my office’s priority. It’s the focus of every single policy that we put into place. We want to make San Francisco safer.”

The divisive campaign has raised the question of whether Boudin and other progressive prosecutors have made the country more dangerous. It has raised the question of whether he and his office can do much to reduce crime in San Francisco, a city I live in and love. And it has raised the question of whether there’s actually a crime wave at all.

San Franciscans certainly believe that crime has increased: In a recent local Chamber of Commerce poll, an overwhelming majority of city residents said they thought that crime rates had gone up. “The results were consistent across gender, age, ethnicity, party affiliation, and neighborhood, and homeownership status,” the business group noted. Separate polls by The San Francisco Standard and the Bay Area Council found much of the same: People are very worried about their safety. In that, the region mirrors national trends. The share of Americans who believe that there is more crime in their neighborhood and across the country has jumped since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Homicides have increased nationally, rising from 5.1 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 6.5 per 100,000 people in 2020, according to government data. A handful of cities—Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Louisville among them—have seen particularly bloody surges. But looking at the nationwide data—violent and nonviolent crimes, serious crimes and minor crimes—it is hard to see consistent evidence of a crime wave. Compared with 2019, reports of robberies were down 9 percent in 2020, aggravated assaults were up 12 percent, burglaries were down 7 percent, motor-vehicle thefts were up 12 percent, and incidents of rape were down 12 percent. “It’s sporadic as to which crime rates are increasing and decreasing, and which cities are going up, stable, or going down,” Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Miami, told me.

In San Francisco, the number of murders increased from 2019 to 2021, with the homicide rate jumping 37 percent. But San Francisco has had 41 to 58 murders a year for the past decade-plus, save for 2012, when there were 68. The years of 2019, 2020, and 2021 all fell in that narrow band. The city has a similar murder rate to that of Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Paul, Minnesota. Deaths by homicide occur at roughly a quarter of the rate they do in neighboring Oakland.

Since Boudin has been in office, reported rates of violent crime in general have decreased, with the number of rapes and assaults falling well below their pre-pandemic levels. But hate crimes against the city’s Asian residents have soared, according to the police department. The city continues to have relatively high rates of property crime, and the pandemic seems to have shifted criminal activity away from touristy areas to residential ones. More people are getting their cars stolen and apartments broken into, while fewer people are getting their bags snatched.

All these numbers—local and national—come with some degree of uncertainty. Crime data are patchy and subject to significant lags. “We can tell you how many chickens were sold last week across the country,” Jennifer Doleac, an economist at Texas A&M University, told me. “But we have no idea how many homicides there were.”

Plus, these data are based on reported crimes. They do not account for increases or decreases in unreported crimes; a huge increase in porch-pirating might never show up in the data, because people generally do not bother to call the cops to complain about missing Amazon packages. They also do not account for changes in people’s propensity to report crimes. If fewer people call the cops because they are, say, afraid of immigration enforcement, that might look like a decrease in crime. If more people call the cops because they are worried about a crime wave, the incidence of crime might seem to increase.

“You can cherry-pick statistics that make it look like crime is down or up,” Boudin told me. “But at a high level, there have been far fewer crimes reported to the police during my tenure than there were reported immediately prior.” He added: “We’re experiencing somewhat of a disconnect between what the data shows us and what people feel.”

The disconnect comes as no surprise, in some sense: Surveys show that a large majority of Americans believe that crime is increasing year in and year out, regardless of whether it is. Indeed, as the incidence of violent crime has dropped since the 1990s, the beliefs that more crimes are being committed and that the country is getting less safe have become only more prevalent.

Why such a great disconnect now? In part, Americans might be reacting to the real increase in the homicide rate, one that researchers do not yet feel confident explaining, though some point to the increased availability of guns, the stressors of the pandemic, suspended court proceedings, and pullbacks in community policing as potential factors. People also might be reacting to exhaustive and sometimes simplistic news coverage of that violent spike. A “crime wave” wave has overtaken the media. Mentions of the phrase more than doubled from 2019 to 2021 in major U.S. print publications, according to Nexis data; the number of minutes the big cable-news networks spent on it increased exponentially. A slew of studies show that individuals form their ideas about the prevalence of crime by following the news. Perhaps people think there’s a crime wave because they keep hearing about a crime wave.

During Boudin’s tenure as D.A., every high-profile criminal incident became a referendum on public safety and the efficacy of his office. A viral video of a “decimated” Louis Vuitton outlet downtown. The horrifying daylight murder of an elderly man. A New Year’s Eve incident in which an intoxicated driver, out on parole, smashed a car into and killed two women on a sidewalk. “That event right there was the last straw for many of us, including me,” Greenberg told me.

Piquero pointed to another factor: The COVID-19 crisis has spurred an increase in antisocial behaviors, as my colleague Olga Khazan has reported. People are anxious. They’re drinking a lot. They’re operating in a divisive, polarized political climate. Road rage, unruly-passenger incidents, school fights—all have become more common. “We’re seeing increases in noncrime aggression,” Piquero said. “There’s this pent-up aggression. People are done with the pandemic, but the pandemic isn’t done with us.” The increase in aggression might feel like an increase in crime.

The pandemic had made people feel less safe in another way, Boudin said. “The way we feel when we walk around our streets has changed,” he told me. “There are far fewer people going shopping and tourists walking around our historic neighborhoods. Those folks who were out and about often felt isolated or alone.” The fewer people on the streets were more vulnerable to crime, noted Doleac. “Having more eyes on the street, having more people out and about—it genuinely does increase public safety,” she told me. “Potential witnesses deter crime.”

In San Francisco, a final major factor may be affecting people’s perceptions of crime. Roughly 4,400 people sleep on the streets every night in the city, a population that has become more obvious as the streets have emptied of commuters, restaurant-goers, and bar-hoppers; overdoses and overdose deaths have also become more common, because of the prevalence of fentanyl. In interviews, social scientists stressed that homelessness itself is not a crime; that the homeless were far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators; and that the mere presence of homeless people does not tend to lead to increases in crime rates, outside of charges such as loitering, panhandling, and public intoxication.

Nevertheless, “the perception is that homelessness and crime are almost synonymous,” Amy Donley, a sociologist at the University of Central Florida, told me. “People are fearful, particularly of unsheltered and chronically homeless people.” This is in part what Greenberg was talking about when he said that “people are sick and tired of the whole atmosphere of the city” and that it is “not fun to live here anymore.” It is a sentiment that came up again and again as I talked with San Franciscans for this article, one I have felt myself from time to time in this jarringly unequal city. I pay crushing sums to live on the same street as a tent encampment. I have to make sure my kid does not pick up dirty needles or step in human excrement when we go for a walk. Homelessness reads as disorder; disorder reads as crime; people conflate the phenomena.

Whether it is real or not, the crime wave is coming for Boudin. San Franciscans do not feel safe and secure. Polling commissioned by the recall campaign shows that more than half of likely voters believe that Boudin is “responsible for rising crime rates in San Francisco, especially burglaries and thefts.”

In response to that perceived reality, and the campaign against him, Boudin made a few arguments to me. First, he said that crime was down, and that his mission is to make the city safer, one way or another. “If you compare the time I’ve been in office with the exact same time period before I was in office, and you look at the San Francisco Police Department dashboard, there’s been a decrease of about 26,000 reported crimes,” he said. He also noted that the pandemic had made the business of justice harder, by closing down courts and other administrative offices.

Second, he pointed to what his office is doing. Boudin had never prosecuted a case before he became district attorney in San Francisco, yet has known the criminal-justice system intimately his whole life. He grew up visiting his parents in prison; the pair took part in a botched armed robbery that left three people dead when Boudin was a toddler. That experience led him to become a public defender and an ardent believer in the necessity of reducing the prison population. “Our criminal-justice system is failing all of us,” he said in his first address to the city as D.A. “It is not keeping us safe.” He asked San Franciscans to join him in “rejecting the notion that to be free, we must cage others.”

Boudin has ended cash bail; ceased prosecuting cases in which the evidence came from “pretextual” traffic stops, such as when a police officer pulls over a car for a broken taillight and ends up booking the driver after finding drugs; stopped using “enhancements” that add years to the sentences of gang members; quit using the state’s “three strikes” law; filed charges against a San Francisco police officer accused of brutality; instituted a commission to identify and overturn wrongful convictions; cut the number of young people incarcerated in half and reduced the pretrial jail population. He has also expanded the use of diversion and restorative-justice programs.

Such initiatives might make the city’s criminal-justice system more equitable. But do they make the city more dangerous? The recall campaign is arguing yes, saying that Boudin has created a culture of impunity and let too many criminals walk free. Not a lot of evidence supports that position, beyond anecdotes. But lenient tactics like Boudin’s lower recidivism rates and thus crime rates in the longer term, Doleac, along with Amanda Agan of Rutgers University and Anna Harvey of New York University, demonstrated in a recent study. Doleac told me she was surprised by her own results. “It just seemed obvious to me that we would see some increase in criminal behavior on the other side, if some people are not being prosecuted and punished,” she said. That’s not what she found: “It is just all benefits. There are no costs.”

Third, Boudin argued that the campaign against him was illegitimate, funded by billionaires and driven by personal pique. “The recall is not about trends in crime rates. It’s about money. It’s about dishonest, political power grabs,” he told me. “If the recall were about crime rates, then there would be a recall in Sacramento, there would be a recall in Alameda County, there would be a recall in lots of red jurisdictions across California and across the country where crimes under conservative, traditional, tough-on-crime prosecutors are skyrocketing.”

In response to rising concerns about crime, many D.A.s and other elected officials, including ones committed to criminal-justice reform, have cracked down. London Breed, San Francisco’s mayor, is one of them. “The reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end,” she said at a press conference in December. “It comes to an end when we take the steps to [get] more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.” Polls show that San Franciscans want the city to use aggressive tactics, such as arresting people for minor offenses and forcing treatment on “dangerous drug users.” Boudin, though, has criticized Breed’s crime-fighting initiatives and has declined to adopt a tough-on-crime posture.

To truly become safer, Boudin has argued, the city needs better social-welfare policies, not more arrests and longer prison sentences: mental-health counseling, housing for the homeless, safe injection sites, street cleaning, and public toilets. He has neither the money nor the remit to do any of that, he told me. “The mayor’s office has primary control over a $14 billion budget,” he said. “My budget is about $75 million. Pretty big gap there.”

He told me he believes that his detractors are making people afraid in order to take him out. “It’s exploiting the kinds of tragedies that have occurred in every jurisdiction across this country for as long as we’ve been keeping track of data on criminal justice, and the kinds of bureaucratic and administrative obstacles that the COVID pandemic imposed on every single court system in this country, and every single district attorney’s office in this country,” he said. “They’re using that to make a scapegoat out of me and my office in our policies that are grounded in evidence-based practices, to enhance safety, to promote justice, and to restore trust in communities impacted by crime.”

Boudin’s struck me as an awkward position to take, in some way. There’s plenty of big money in the recall race, to be sure, and some of that money is Republican. But a large share of San Franciscans have expressed their dissatisfaction with the district attorney and their concerns about public safety. Many are liberals, and a lot of them are progressives. Indeed, perhaps the most compelling voice challenging Boudin is not Greenberg, who used to be a registered Republican (he’s an independent now, he told me); it is Brooke Jenkins, a progressive prosecutor herself.

Jenkins supports diversion programs for low-level crimes, she told me, as well as programs to shorten excessive sentences and free the wrongfully convicted. A Black and Latina woman, she deplores what mass incarceration has done to communities of color. She said that she appreciated how compassionate and reform-focused San Francisco was as a city. Thus, she said, she looked forward to working with Boudin when he came into office.

Yet, working on murder cases for him, she said, she came to question whether he was the right person for the job. He had decided what not to do and where to pull back, she said. But he had not figured out how to fight the crime the city was facing. “Chesa has refused to switch hats,” she told me. “He maintains the outlook or the mindset of a public defender. His view is that crime is just a part of life, something that we all have to endure and deal with. It’s never going to go away. No amount of punishment for any offender is going to change what happened, even in a murder case.”

She worried that this posture discourages people from reporting offenses against them. She also worried that it disrespects the victims of violence—a personal issue for her, after her husband’s cousin was murdered in the summer of 2020. “I don’t think he’s willing to listen to those Black voices,” she told me. “He believes, in his mind, that he knows what’s best for them.”

Perhaps her strongest argument was that Boudin simply isn’t good at the job. Half the lawyers working for him have quit, retired, or been fired. She personally decided to quit after he declined to hear her out on not accepting the insanity plea of a defendant who had murdered his mother. “He never requested to meet with me via Zoom or any other mechanism,” she said. “He never requested to see the file to review.” She declined to go to court to enter into the agreement. “That was a level of irresponsibility and recklessness that I wasn’t going to participate in,” she said.

Boudin has also shown himself to be less than adept at the political role he’s taken on as D.A. He’s arguing with his own constituents about their lived experience. He’s sniping at the mayor and feuding with the police force. I can’t remember interviewing a politician who seemed less politic. I asked if there was a crime wave in San Francisco, and he said the question was in some sense fundamentally unanswerable, before citing the police statistics showing that crime had gone down. I asked if it was a problem that so many prosecutors had left his office, and he responded in part by talking about the Great Resignation. I asked if his public rift with the city’s cops affected his ability to do his job, and he responded, “Of course it does.”

With the recall election nearing and polling showing that Boudin might be ousted, more people have come out to make his case for him. Elected officials, including most of the members of the Board of Supervisors, have backed Boudin. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an editorial supporting him. Many of the city’s major unions are rallying for him, as is the ACLU of Northern California. Voters are hearing the argument that the recall is a hasty, antidemocratic effort and that Boudin is implementing the humane, effective reform policies the city voted him in to try just a few years ago.

Yet so much has changed in those few years. The country has lurched from concern over murderous police violence and the tragedy of mass incarceration to concern about cities under siege and higher homicide rates. Boudin has responded in part by refusing to respond, declining to crack down or even to seem like he is. Whatever evidentiary backing that refusal might have, it has left many members of the relevant jury, the city’s voters, unconvinced.


This article has been updated to clarify that the recall election was not triggered by Greenberg's initiative.