The Utter Futility of Fighting Crime in San Francisco

This Atlantic story comes with a major caveat, it's funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a pro-crime foundation, and tries to rope in the assorted pro-crime rhetoric, sneers at people privileged enough to get Amazon deliveries and conspiracy theories about Amazon's Ring cameras, and the usual racial and economic excuses for crime by junkies, but between the lines the story it relates is how futile fighting crime in San Fran really is and how the very people who fall victim to it persist in the lefty politics that cause it.

The topic of the story is a junkie who keeps stealing Amazon packages from the porches of upper middle class lefty homeowners. And the general futility of trying to hold her accountable in a city run by pro-crime activists.

The first time Ganave Fairley got busted for stealing a neighbor’s Amazon package, she was just another porch thief unlucky to be caught on tape. In August 2016, a 30-something product marketing manager at Google, expecting some deliveries, got an iPhone ping from his porch surveillance camera as it recorded a black woman in a neon hoodie plucking some bundles off his San Francisco stoop. After arriving home that afternoon, the Googler got in his Subaru Impreza to hunt for any remnants strewn around the streets of his Potrero Hill neighborhood. Instead, he spotted Fairley herself, boarding a city bus, which he trailed while dialing 911. Minutes later, he watched responding police officers pull their cruiser in front of the bus and escort her off. The Googler, sitting nearby in his car, played the Nest Cam tape for them—Yep, it’s her—and the police pulled a $107.66 Apple Magic Keyboard from Fairley’s purse and black tar heroin from her coin pocket. The officers wrote Fairley a ticket with a court date a month later. “I thought it was just a ticket, and that was it,” Fairley said.

Because, you know, you steal something worth over a hundred bucks, it should just be a ticket. And that's pretty much what it was. As this story chronicles, nothing actually stops Fairley. Despite the pearl clutching about law enforcement, this just keeps going and going.

Julie Margett, a nurse who lives on the street, in a purple cottage with a rainbow gay-pride flag and a black lives matter sign in the window, said she was leaving her garage and spotted Fairley coming down her neighbor’s stairs carrying boxes with various addresses on them. Surmising that they were stolen, she asked Fairley warily, in her British accent, “What are you doing?”

Fairley called her a racist (in fact, she still does) and told her she was in the middle of moving. “That was what was so disarming about her,” Margett told me. “Before you know it, she’s torn you to shreds and she’s off down the block.”

Still, some residents, like Margett, said they were attracted to the diversity in a city that is hemorrhaging people who don’t earn tech paychecks. Margett said Potrero welcomed her, a white woman and a proud lesbian sporting a Mohawk ponytail (“The pulse of the neighborhood, to me, is more important than petty crime”), and the neighbors have dealt with the glaring disparities in their own ways. Every week, Margett picks up donations from big-box stores to take to homeless shelters; she also puts them on the bench in front of her house, free for the taking.

A union-leader neighbor, Jason Rosenbury, showed the person he suspected of stealing his succulent plants a Nest recording of the heist, and said he wouldn’t report it to the police if he got the plants back. Upon their return, he glued new pots to the concrete to avoid further strife. “I’m a full-blown socialist,” he told me, “but I’m also for law and order.”

When I visited Margett, she said that in her interaction with Fairley, the charged dynamic of “white-privileged homeowner” versus “someone who is barely making it” was not lost on her, yet she didn’t consider herself a bigot for calling out what she deduced was petty crime. “One is always so concerned about not wanting to appear that way, and then I’m second-guessing myself—Maybe I did leap to that conclusion because she’s African American,” she recalled. “But no! I know what I saw.”

There's hope for Margett yet. And I have to wonder how many of these people will be voting Republican in 10-20 years.

In Potrero, Fairley had been captured on camera enough times, snatching packages or walking down the street with bundles of mail, that many in the neighborhood had a face and a name to attach to their generalized anger about ongoing nuisances. 

In december 2017, Mark Arnold, the senior vice president of marketing for a radiosurgery start-up, was working from home when he glanced out at his stoop and snapped into high alert: Ganave goddamn Fairley! He cut off a conference call without explanation and sprinted outside in his socks, cuing up his cellphone camera. Arnold had been keeping an eye out for Fairley all fall, since $691 of Walgreens, Target, and Burlington Stores charges showed up on a Chase card that had been mailed to him and that police had plucked out of Fairley’s backpack.

As he starts filming, Arnold confronts Fairley in a neighbor’s stairwell, holding some sort of paper. “So what’s going on?” Arnold asks, authoritatively. “We’ve got plenty of photos and videos of you stealing things up and down this street.”

“You don’t have me stealing nothing,” Fairley snipes back. He asks if her name is Ganave. She says it’s Jessica. “I pass out flyers every day over here,” she insists—from Nextel (which closed years earlier)—and adds, “Just because I’m African American don’t mean I can’t pass out flyers!”

This has zero to do with race,” Arnold interjects. Fairley shoots back that it does. (Arnold is white.) 

After the spat, Arnold followed Fairley down the street, watching her take other mail—“fearless,” as Arnold would later describe her to me—and called the cops. He snapped a photo of Fairley for a forthcoming Nextdoor report as the police came and detained her. Neighbors thanked and high-fived him as he walked home, in socks, victorious—at least for the hour.

Because of all this is futile. Most crime is carried out by repeat offenders and they get little more than court dates and treatment programs.

Two incidents—the Googler and the bus; the Prius calling in Fairley—resulted in charges (petty theft, mail theft, receiving stolen property, and possession of heroin—all misdemeanors), and tickets for court dates. But Fairley regularly skipped her hearings—she’d lose track of the dates, she later told me, and just had “a lot going on”—which slowed the process of resolving the cases. Again and again, in her absence, the judge would issue bench warrants, and Fairley would eventually be arrested and booked into jail, from which the judge would release her to await her next hearing, with demands that she report to diversion programs or Narcotics Anonymous meetings—all while neighbors continued to report on Nextdoor that they were watching her steal mail.

San Francisco County courts have long referred many low-level offenders to rehabilitative programs while they are awaiting trial rather than have them sit in jail. This practice endlessly angers the victims of the property crimes, and concerns cops, too. 

In January 2018, Arnold took time off from work to attend one of Fairley’s hearings, at the suggestion of the prosecutor then handling the case. (An organized group of San Franciscans also has taken to sitting in on burglary cases to show elected judges that voters are watching.) While Arnold sat in the courtroom, his wife texted that Fairley wouldn’t be showing up: She was on their stoop that very moment, apparently in the middle of another stealing expedition.

In January 2018, yet another neighbor grabbed a package out of Fairley’s hand, and signed a citizen’s arrest form, leading to another charge of petty theft. In February, a judge slammed Fairley with a stay-away order for blocks where she’d been accused of stealing. In March, the police and U.S. Postal Service inspectors rustled through Fairley’s unit with a search warrant, finding clothes and other items she had been seen wearing in cellphone and porch-cam footage, along with mail and documents printed with the names of 40 different neighbors. After missing yet more court dates that spring—resulting in more warrants, more arrests—she was jailed again in April, and released the next month with an ankle monitor.

I'm cutting away a lot of the pro-crime fluff about racism and poverty, and just cutting to the chase. Which is that there isn't one.

No matter how much Fairley steals or how often, she keeps being set free to steal again. The era of broken windows policing is dead which means that criminals and pro-crime activists flourish.

The case finally goes to trial and she's found guilty of all charges.

 After a day of deliberations, the jury returned a packet of verdict sheets on which one of them had scrawled “GUILTY,” determining that Fairley had committed every act she was charged with. They even convicted her of stealing when they had been given the alternative of finding that she merely possessed stolen items.

In sum: She was found guilty of the drug charge, of five counts of receiving stolen property (one was later thrown out), and of every single theft.

Her lawyer files an appeal and no, she doesn't actually get put away.

Judge Charles Crompton acknowledged that economic necessity had contributed to Fairley’s actions, and sentenced her to a minimum of one year in a full-time drug rehab program—the first stage of three years of probation—and imposed a stay-away order from the blocks she’d targeted

Not prison. Drug rehab. Which, predictably, she fails.

Then, within a month of arriving at the rehab program, she failed three drug tests—meth, she said—and was kicked out...

When Fairley was a no-show for a December 26 probation hearing, the judge once again called for her arrest.

On New Year’s Day, a new post entitled “A bold daytime porch thief” appeared on Potrero’s Nextdoor. A software engineer at Square had posted a Nest Cam video of a woman jauntily striding up to his entryway and checking inside a utility box where postal workers leave deliveries, a package already tucked under her arm. Margett dove into the comments:

 A month later, in a new Nest video shot at the same entryway, Fairley was seen mumbling to herself, tripping on a recycling bin on her way down the sidewalk. (Fairley told me she wasn’t interested in talking about the videos.) Ten days later, cops found her in her former unit and hauled her back to jail on warrants.  

Is this actually going to put her away? Nope.

If she failed a second rehab program, the judge could make her serve her year-long sentence in jail

In May, she showed up in San Francisco court, where Judge Crompton sentenced her to a year in a Salvation Army recovery program while on probation.

“Thank you,” Fairley said. Later that afternoon, she walked out of county jail again—this time, to a rehab facility in a nearby colonnaded building just three blocks away, to try to prove that history wasn’t fate, and that she could change.

Potrero’s conflict with Fairley herself is not over. Sometime in late summer, Fairley left her Salvation Army program early. She skipped a probation status hearing, and the judge issued new warrants for her arrest. 

Starting in mid-September, posts started popping up on the Neighbors app showing Ring videos of someone—Fairley, it was clear to me—hitting Potrero stoops. In one, she wrestles with something on the ground before someone off-camera yells, “Get the fuck out of here, man!” (A commenter wrote, “So satisfying. Jump him next time!”) Another video includes a close-up of Fairley’s face as she grabs at something offscreen while wearing a Rastafarian hoodie; in an accompanying post, the user explains that a package had been ripped open but left in place. 

You can see why the police don't bother. You can also see why we used to have mandatory sentencing and three strikes laws.

Then Democrats went full pro-crime and some Republicans joined them. And now there's no point. People like Fairley go in and out with no consequences. And the people she steals from keep voting for the politicians who enable her.