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Lessons Learned While Living in San Francisco, by JGD

I’m writing this as I wrap up my 18th year of living in San Francisco to outline a recent experience with crime in this city. Beneath the surface, this city has big problems. Above the surface, San Francisco is a beautiful city, and it’s a ton of fun to live here. There are thousands of things to do and amazing places to visit; you name it, and it’s here. I’ve got a great career and a beautiful, like-minded woman. I own my house and have a great sailboat and lots of friends. I could not be more blessed. Things just could not be better, or so it seems. Sadly, they are far from great, because of the taxes, rules, and constant lack of enforcement of even the most basic laws. Most notably, our District Attorney (DA) does not prosecute enough, and I’m sure that even if he did that the prison system in this beautiful state would be able to accommodate any more criminals. I’m to the point that the have-nots in our entire ecosystem of cities (i.e. The Bay Area) no longer worry about any crime other than murder. After my girlfriend was victimized by yet another broad daylight car break in, I took matters into my own hands. Here’s my story…

My Story

Around 13:00 on Sunday January 11th, my girlfriend and I were at Trader Joe’s doing some grocery shopping. I usually avoid the place like the plague on a Sunday, because it is overrun with idiots all vying to get their weekly fill of granola [1] or whatnot. However, there are a few products that are amazing and you just can’t get anywhere else. Usually, we use AmazonFresh or Instacart to avoid the public masses in the city, but on this day, we just felt like doing it. It takes a lot of special services or expenses to make living in the city comfortable, but it is worth it if you want to have a quality of life that is on par with other more suburban areas. Prior to our visit to Trader Joe’s, we had just left the local homeless shelter where we donated four garbage bags full of clothes. Even at the homeless shelter, it was a mess of chaos, so we didn’t stick around to get paperwork for tax write-off purposes. We just wanted to get our errands done. There’s a theme here, isn’t there?

Upon returning to our car, we noted that the right rear window was smashed in. We quickly inspected the vehicle and did not notice anything missing. Having had my car broken into perhaps seven or eight times over the past 18 years, I figured that we should take the car to a secure place and schedule a safelight auto glass repair. So my girlfriend dropped me off at my place so I could get my Hummer H2. The plan was for me to follow her home and then we’d go together to the local police station and file a report. Things weren’t as they seemed though, as after she left me to head for home, she realized that her backpack, which contained her ipad and work laptop [2], had been stolen.

As luck would have it, right after my girlfriend dropped me off, she called me and advised me that she ran into a cop and the theft victim he was helping showed her how to use “find my iPhone.” We had initially thought she didn’t have it enabled, but it was. They were able to see that her stolen iPad was headed towards the 101 freeway south. We hurried over to the police station and proudly showed the “find my iPhone” location on the screen to the officer behind the 1.5 inches of bullet-proof glass with the little slotted communication ports. He looked up at us and said, “I’m sorry; we do not respond to these, and we do not advise that you do anything about it other than file a report.”

I was livid. With all the taxes we pay, the parking tickets to succumb to, and all the other fees and assessments that we endure, this was not what I wanted to hear. We had a location of our stolen property right there for the local law enforcement officers to see. I was not going to stand for it, so I turned to my girlfriend and said, “Let’s go get it, Honey.”

We battled traffic to get onto the 101 freeway and head south in pursuit. The entire time, I was thinking to myself, “What should I do if we find them? I don’t want to put my girl in harm’s way, so how do I do this?”

We were gaining on them; they appeared to stop at a Lucky grocery store just south of the city. I kept thinking to myself, “How can I do this safely? I won’t be able to live with myself if something bad happens!”

Our criminals got back on the 101 and headed south past San Francisco International Airport. This time I called my friend, Jay, who is a former LEO. He said to me, “Don’t approach them; it could be dangerous. The cops can’t do anything, because they need probable cause to search someone or arrest them.” I said to Jay, “What if I see them with the stolen property?” Jay replied, “Then they can go get them.”

Having satisfied my mental state with a plan, I refocused on tracking them. My girlfriend kept calling out their location every time the “find my iPhone” application updated. We were getting closer, but this time the criminals had turned around and headed north again on the 101 freeway. I focused on safely exiting, and rapidly getting turned around.

We were less than two exits behind them, and they appeared to have stopped at an IHOP restaurant in Brisbane, which is just south of San Francisco. Then, they quickly got back on the 101 freeway and headed north again into San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, they exited onto Vermont Street and sped through Potrero Hill. This is my neighborhood, and I had them right where I wanted them. At this point, I was no more than three blocks behind them. My nerves were on edge and adrenaline was flowing.

The criminals appeared to be heading to the Oakland Bay Bridge, which wasn’t a good sign, because crime and criminals go hand in hand in Oakland. Still we pressed on over the bridge to the 580 freeway, to the 980 freeway, and then to the 880 freeway, where they exited and appeared to park at Laney College, just across from a huge swap meet. That was no surprise there, and I was somewhat happy that we tracked them to a large, open, crowded, public place. I don’t know if I would have had the guts to enter a dark alley, but my goal was to spot the stolen property and call the police, never to approach them. That was the mental plan that unfolded in my head numerous times while pursuing these punks.

My girlfriend noted that we appeared to have passed the criminals by using the “find my iPhone” application, and there were two vehicles parked on the side of the road that we just passed. I was careful to pass them by 30 or 40 meters before I parked. I looked around and made a mental note of the surroundings, possible cover, people, and just about anything. I didn’t know what to do, but my plan was to track them from a distance and give law enforcement probable cause. So, I casually got out of my Hummer, like I was hunting for a good lamp at the local swap meet. I instructed my girlfriend to stay in the car, but she wasn’t having it. Conceding, I plead with her to stay 10-15 meters behind me. She did.

As we walked down the street towards the first car that was stopped on the side of the road behind us, I casually walked by and used all the peripheral vision I could to inspect the vehicle. What appeared was an old family, all doors open, a walker [3], a baby, and no bags or stolen goods. “On to the next one,” I thought.

As I focused on the next car, I realized I had found them. There was a heavy set Hispanic male leaning into the vehicle with a wad of cash conducting a transaction with the front passenger, who had a stack of laptops. As we walked slowly up to them, my girlfriend, who was still behind me, advised me that the “find my iPhone” application lost the signal. Obviously the purchaser of the stolen goods had informed the criminals that they were capable of being tracked, so they had shut down the iPad. It was too late though; I had eyes on them.

I dropped back to my girlfriend and walked between them and the car, advising my girlfriend to act like nothing at all is happening. We just simply walked by. As soon as we passed them, I got their license plate number and kept walking. Once we were 10 or 15 meters past the vehicle, I looked back and so did my girlfriend. She said to me “Honey, there’s my iPad and my laptop!” She could identify her iPad from the shiny fancy red cover she had on it.

This was our probable cause, and despite all my mental simulations while pursuing these thieves, I acted quickly and ran across the street so I could track the stolen property, which was now in the hands of someone who obviously had a booth at the local swap meet. This person was stuck on the traffic median waiting for a “walk” signal. I went off script and yelled assertively, “You are in possession of stolen property, which we just observed you buy from that vehicle. We have tracked them all over the Bay Area. Place the stolen property on the deck and we will not call the police. DO IT NOW!”

The car drove off rapidly, and the person who bought the stolen goods placed the stack of laptops and iPads down and then took off into the crowd. Not one single person stopped to help. In fact I don’t think a single person even broke stride.

Seconds later, my girlfriend came running up, found her laptop and her iPad and was very happy. I advised her that we needed to maintain situational awareness and that we were in no way in a happy place just yet. I called the Oakland police department to file a report. Honestly, the thought of just leaving the stolen property that wasn’t ours behind did cross my mind, but returning the stolen property to the authorities seemed appropriate.

After getting off the phone with the 911 dispatcher, we waited over 20 minutes for an Oakland police officer to show up. While we were waiting, though, my girlfriend fired up each laptop and found out who their owners were, then sent them an email letting them know we retrieved their stuff. After 25 minutes and still no police response, I decided to pack it in and drive the stolen property back to the San Francisco Police station that told us not to do anything and that they wouldn’t do anything. I figured, “Hmmm, this will be a nice surprise for them to deal with.”

Humorously, we drove about 300 feet toward home, turned the corner, and there was an Oakland Police officer in the car just sitting there doing nothing. We had called the police 25 minutes prior, and there was a police officer in a car just around the corner the entire time doing NOTHING. This was par for the course. We were let down by not one but two different police jurisdictions.

We pulled over to the police, informed them of what happened, and they gladly took possession of the stolen property, filed a report, and gave us a case number. Ironically, while we were divulging information to the police officers, my girlfriend’s phone rang; it was one of the victims who we reached out to via email. They were overjoyed and very thankful. We gave them all the information they needed to retrieve their property, thanked the Oakland police officers for their help, and headed home.

Lessons Learned

  1. PREPARE. This one turned out okay, but it might not have. I have spent the past few years preparing and training so that, as I put it, “I’m not the hapless idiot in the movie where everything goes wrong and people die.” I prepare and train to help others. I prepare and train, because one day I realized that this beautiful city we live in is inches from a WROL scenario. It’s all just below the surface.
  2. PREPARATION ISN’T ENOUGH; LOCATION IS KEY! This was a wakeup call for me. While I am prepared for anything, when it comes to band aids, beans, and bullets in the most almighty way imaginable, thanks to my professional successes. However, the one thing you cannot overcome, no matter how hard you try, is living in the wrong location.
  3. MOST MAJOR POPULATION CENTERS ARE LOST CAUSES. Our beloved city, in all its glory, is on the verge of lawlessness. You cannot spend your way into a utopian society or educate yourself to prosperity, if there isn’t security. Right now, where I’m sitting, we have a law enforcement system that is broken because of the right intentions coupled with the wrong principles. We have a penal system that is overflowing. People in the San Francisco Bay Area are going to have to learn to live with crime that goes unenforced in broad daylight, because there is just too much of it. It’s just slightly below the surface.
  4. TRAIN TO COMPLEMENT YOUR PREPS. Aside from having an extensive array of preparations, I advise that you train extensively whenever you can at things like first aid, firearms, trade craft, self-defense, fitness, communications, and anything that interests you and will complement your tangible preps.
  5. BE MENTALLY AWARE AT ALL TIMES. My mind was on overdrive throughout this whole process. Driving rapidly on the freeway, trying to be safe, tracking someone, and rehearsing what you are going to do– it was a mental workout. Simulate all possible outcomes of any scenario to help balance risk. Be situationally aware. Don’t be stupid; be wise. Also, allow time to unwind afterwards. My mind kept racing for hours after the incident to where I couldn’t focus.