If you’re on social media, you probably saw a viral video spread like wildfire earlier this week in which a shoplifter got away with a daring daylight raid of several items. In the video, several people — including a security guard — film a suspect throwing different items into a grocery bag and then hightailing it out of there on a bicycle. Police are investigating the crime, but the video is being used as evidence of a growing crimewave, one media outlets were happy to trumpet.
— Lyanne Melendez (@LyanneMelendez) June 14, 2021
“San Francisco’s chain drug stores have a shoplifting problem,” declared CNN. “Viral Walgreens shoplifting incident is par for the course,” New York Post agreed. The video has been shared hundreds of thousands of times across social media, building a narrative of worsening crime in cities. That’s a popular narrative but there’s just one problem. The data just doesn’t show it.
If you keep reading past CNN’s headline and several paragraphs of anecdotal evidence from Walgreens brass, you get to actual numbers, which tell a different story. The San Francisco Police Department is actually seeing a dip in crime in 2021, part of a larger overall downward trend. Property crimes are down nearly 8 percent so far in 2021, and larceny theft — the category of crime that includes shoplifting — is down 14.4 percent.
Now, a San Francisco Board of Supervisors hearing in May did have a discussion around shoplifting in San Francisco chain drugstores, during which board member Ahsha Safai said, “People are scared to go into these stores: seniors, people with disabilities, children. And it’s just happening brazenly. We can’t just as a city throw up our hands and say this is OK.”
Walgreens itself says that shoplifting rates in San Francisco are higher than the national average. CVS described San Francisco as “one of the epicenters of organized retail crime.” That all may be true, but when this internal data is coming from companies that spend millions of dollars lobbying local officials to pass stricter shoplifting laws, their word needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
Crime happens, and sometimes it happens in dramatic, viral-ready ways. But Americans need to be careful about false narratives that try to stoke our fears for other, duplicitous ends. Christians, in particular, should be wary of buying into any framework of the world rooted in panic-y “the sky is falling!” discourse. Our emotional health is not fodder for bad faith actors with ulterior motives.