by Charles Russo
(Originally Published in the SF Bay Guardian, April 2006)
(1st Place Award for News Story – Peninsula Press Club)
It was just a few days into the new year, and Maloney had become a regular at the Bean Bag, lured in by its free Internet service after recently canceling his home DSL line as a way of reining in expenses.
Maloney was absorbed in his work when a hooded person suddenly yanked the laptop from his hands and ran out the door. Maloney tried to grab his computer, but stumbled across a few chairs and landed on the floor as the perpetrator dashed to a vehicle waiting a quarter block away.
Call it an iJacking: a street-level strong-arm robbery of computer gadgetry. In the past few months, the Western Addition has, in the words of a recent SFPD neighborhood bulletin, “been plagued by this type of crime with very few arrests.”
These robberies have occurred in most coffeehouses in the neighborhood, giving business owners the difficult choice of scaring customers away with warnings or leaving them unaware of the growing threat.
GRAND THEFT LAPTOP
“It is obviously a trend,” Lt. John Loftos of the SFPD’s Robbery Division told the Guardian. “We are seeing crimes that we have never seen before, based on a cultural change. The crime trend is following the wireless trend.”
The cultural change Loftos refers to is the dramatic increase in city residents now openly sporting expensive and easily transportable pieces of technology in public.
“We are seeing a similar trend with the advent of the iPod,” Loftos told us. “People walk around with those white earphones, and it lets a would-be opportunist know that they have a $300 piece of equipment in their pocket.”
A new laptop, on the other hand, can cost $1,000 or more, making it as valuable a theft as it is a viable one. In 2004 the SFPD Robbery Division recorded 17 strong-arm laptop robberies citywide. This increased to 30 cases in 2005, a total that doesn’t even include thefts that fall under the category of “burglary,” when a victim isn’t present. (SFPD could not provide statistics on the number of laptop burglaries.)
In the past three months alone, Park Station, the police precinct that includes the Western Addition, has reported 11 strong-arm laptop robberies, a statistic that suggests this one district may exceed last year’s citywide total by the end of 2006.
“It is a difficult thing to police,” Loftos said. “We are beginning to do decoy programs in that area, but it is difficult to justify having a team of officers just sitting out there all day.”
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the Western Addition, told us iJacking “has not escalated to an issue of significant importance to the police, because the gun violence and homicides have eclipsed everything else.” Yet, he said, police need to have a stronger presence in the neighborhood to prevent the full range of criminal behavior that is plaguing it, from iJacking to murder.
“There needs to be strong leadership in the police department and City Hall requiring follow-up and prosecution of these robberies,” he told us. “Many people don’t even report these crimes because they have already capitulated, as if nothing is going to be done about it.”
Ali reached under a table and pulled out a long wire made of fiberglass and metal, shaking his head in frustration. “The amazing thing is, I have these locks now, and people still don’t use them.”
Ali has owned his café (which he asked us not to name), located north of the Panhandle, for more than 10 years. Sporting a grayish-black beard and possessing a bearlike frame, Ali is affable and well-spoken. When it comes to the topic at hand, he speaks frankly: “I’ve lost a lot of business over this.”
The laptop leashes cost him $40 each. They are long, solid cables that loop around the base of the café tables like a wire bicycle leash and end in a combination lock that attaches to an outlet within most (recently-made) laptop.
Ali has purchased three of these locks and intends to buy a few more. In addition to being a security measure, the leashes reflect Ali’s willingness to be proactive in combating the problem, a perspective that isn’t often shared by other café owners.
Café Abir, on the corner of Divisadero and Fulton Streets, buzzes with activity from the early morning work commute to late-night USF study sessions. Abir had two laptops stolen in the past year, a number that manager Michaela Griner was reluctant to share. “We,” she said with nervous hesitation, “do not like talking about this.”
While Abir has no formal policy to inform laptop-using patrons of the robbery trend, Griner has taken to warning people if they leave their computers unattended. “People are just careless,” she told us. “You wouldn’t leave your wallet out unattended, so why would you leave your laptop?”
The youngest coffeehouse in the neighborhood seems to be the most effective in addressing the issue. Eton Tsuno is owner of Café Organica, on the corner of Grove Street and Central Avenue. It is a hip location that is constantly playing hipster blip-hop and specializes in gourmet coffee drinks. The establishment suffered a stolen laptop this past fall and then quickly moved to thwart the problem.
Tsuno told us that by warning all of the café’s laptop users as well as by quickly sending an employee to guard the front door whenever suspicious individuals are loitering out front, his café has been successful in deterring a second incident. “I think we have stopped it from happening a good three or four times at least,” he said. “It has been very obvious.”
Tsuno is also active in trying to get the neighborhood’s café owners to tackle the theft problem as a unified group. Recently, Tsuno and Ali agreed on an early warning system, resolving to inform each other by phone whenever they suspect a potential threat in the neighborhood.
“Café owners are trying to keep it hush,” he said. “And it’s just going to keep happening if they keep it like that.”
An hour after Maloney’s laptop was stolen, a man was viciously assaulted in the Panhandle and robbed of his laptop by a suspect of similar description. Together, the incidents reflect the violent and audacious nature of the iJacking trend.
Two weeks before Maloney’s robbery, on a Sunday afternoon, a man had been followed out of the Starbucks on the corner of Fulton Street and Masonic Avenue and was assaulted by two suspects in broad daylight. According to the police report, the suspects dragged the victim 15 feet along the pavement, kicking him in the face before stealing his computer.
In early February a women had her laptop snatched while sitting in Ali’s café. She pursued the perpetrator out the door, only to be blindsided by a second accomplice. Ali described the assault as “a football tackle” so severe it left the victim’s eyeglasses in the branches of a nearby tree. In the most recent laptop robbery, on March 16 in a café on the 900 block of Valencia Street, police say the victim was actually stabbed.
The SFPD has actually had some success in thwarting these incidents as they happen. According to the Park Station Crime Bulletin, police officers apprehended three suspects in a recent gunpoint laptop robbery of a USF student.
The police also chased down the two suspects who had stalked, assaulted, and robbed the man who walked out of the Starbucks on Masonic Avenue in December. In hindsight, that arrest raised more questions than it answered. The Park Station weekly newsletter suggested the two suspects were responsible for the recent series of laptop robberies in the area. Yet the cluster of similar incidents that has occurred since their arrest suggests these crimes are not the work of one particular perpetrator.
While the armchair philosophers of the neighborhood’s cafés have myriad iJacking theories, one point of agreement is that this trend is not exclusive to the Western Addition. Stories of other café-related laptop thefts around the city are in abundant supply, such as those that have recently occurred in Cole Valley, the Mission District, the Richmond, and the Lower Haight.
The proposed citywide wireless network raises the possibility that with more residents using their laptops in public, the robberies could become more frequent and widespread — and therefore harder to manage. As the SFPD ponders elaborate undercover operations to curb the robberies, the solution may be as simple as convincing communities to pay more attention to their surroundings.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Maloney said. “Just let people know, and it will stop.”