Guns, Germs, and Steal: The Crime Epidemic in Post-Pandemic California

Tegan Holdaway, May 29, 2024

California faces yet another dangerous outbreak, but this time it is characterized by ski masks rather than surgical ones. From armed robbery to petty theft, crime in the state has been on the rise since the reversal of quarantine orders. This increase comes as a surprise from an economic standpoint, considering the forgiving nature of COVID-19 relief checks and payment suspensions. According to President Joe Biden, our nation is currently sitting in an “economic sweet spot” [1]. So why are California residents turning to crime, despite seeming financial prosperity?


Property crimes since the pandemic have been on a steady rise. The state’s most recent annual report found such crimes to be 6 percent higher than they were in 2020 and 2021 [2]. Business owners are closing their doors at never-before-seen rates, and criminal activity seems to be a major cause. In Oakland, 94 percent of businesses have experienced a crime in the past year, and 50 percent say current conditions surrounding safety have made it difficult to retain employees [3]. Store robberies and car break-ins in the city are also up, by 35 percent and 27 percent respectively. Even indirectly, growing crime is changing the scene for California consumers. In response to daily shoplifting, Target and Walmart stores across the state have begun locking up major sections of merchandise, such as hygiene products and undergarments [4].


Violent crime in the state is trending upward as well. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, homicides have increased by nearly 34 percent, and aggravated assaults are up by 25 percent [5]. Though the bay-area city of Emeryville has only 12,000 residents, its violent crime rate in 2022 was 382 percent higher than the national average [6]. Across the entire state, violent crimes are occurring at a frequency 6 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels [7].


So what are the leading contagions for this crime outbreak? According to residents, failed leadership is one. More than half of Californians characterize California Governor Gavin Newsom’s ability to address crime as “poor” or “very poor” [8]. While Newsom recently boasted “near fifty-year lows'' in terms of violent crime in the state, trends suggest that his multi-billion dollar investments into community-based crime prevention have been unsuccessful [9]. Despite his implementation of additional gun control legislation in the state, gun usage in both violent and property crimes has been on an incline since 2020 [10]. Newsom stands by the past decade of penal code modifications, which reduced theft to a misdemeanor and outlawed the detainment of an individual who steals less than $950 of retail merchandise. However, these policies are falling out of favor for local California legislatures. This January, San Bernardino County created an assembly bill that would allow prosecutors to go after repeat offenders even if their theft totalled less than $950 in each incident. This comes as a response to the county’s inability to properly punish instances of smash-and-grab robbery. More and more communities are growing tired of living in a non-accountability culture where repeat offenders remain on the streets. 


Ineffectiveness is spreading to municipal officials as well. Since Newsom’s induction, California has seen an influx in district attorneys seeking shorter sentences and emptier prisons. Unfortunately, these reformist policies do not come without a price. In the past six months, Alameda County, which contains three of the state’s most dangerous cities, has raised $2.2 million to recall District Attorney Pamela Price [11]. The recall movement was established by a Chinatown business owner and a lifelong Oakland resident who lost her son to gun violence. The pair and their supporters feel Price has been too soft on the county’s convicts, and want leaders who are more focused on investigating crime and less focused on investigating police officers and jail guards.


Anti-police rhetoric may be the most counteractive thing to arise from pandemic-era social movements. Beginning in the summer of 2020, an estimated 15 to 26 million Americans took to the streets to protest police brutality and the death of George Floyd. Many associated with the movement also called for the defunding of law enforcement agencies across the nation. By 2021, San Francisco and Los Angeles had reduced their police budget by a combined $200 million [12]. Police brutality and abuse of power are serious topics to be addressed, but the consequences of anti-police rhetoric are being felt in California communities. In 2022, California saw a historically low number of arrests, despite a rise in instances of crime [13]. The Oakland branch of the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the nation, now identifies a lack of funding and resources for law enforcement as a central cause of the city’s crime problem [14]. They especially recognize how increasing crime has been detrimental to the city’s lower-income communities and many minority-owned businesses. San Francisco Mayor London Breed was a vocal advocate for reducing her city’s police force in 2020. Crime growth after the pandemic, however, motivated her to reverse this stance and call for further funding and a more aggressive enforcement of law in recent years [15]. The SFPD faced major budget and personnel reductions after 2020, and now faces a shortage of approximately 600 officers.


The road from here is unclear. Advocates for softening crime policy fear that reversals will lead to trends of mass incarceration that date back to the 1980s. But the situation in California makes one thing clear: the price being paid by criminals is not high enough to deter them from crime. People should not be imprisoned unfairly, or for unreasonable amounts of time, but it is crucial that the justice system protects California residents from dangerous and repeat offenders. A third of Californians consider growing crime a major issue, and 62 percent have daily concerns about their safety [16]. Alarmingly, the consequences of growing crime are being felt most by California’s most marginalized communities [17]. Leadership and legislature must do more to protect the already underserved from an additional economic hindrance.


Criminals steal. Sellers adjust accordingly. The real loser here is the non-criminal; the lifelong California resident who now wonders if they can afford deodorant and toothpaste in the same shopping trip. The busy shopper who now waits five minutes for an overwhelmed floor attendant to unlock the glass and steel-enforced body wash aisle. It seems it may be time for California to stop locking up items on shelves, and start locking up the people who steal them.


[1] Jamrisko et al. “Joe Biden gives a rare take on interest rates by saying the latest jobs numbers show the economy is in a ‘sweet spot’ and that rate hikes aren’t needed.” Fortune. December 8th, 2023.

[2] Smith, Steve. “California’s 2022 Annual Crime Statistics Released – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. July 12th, 2023.

[3] Lin, Da. “Small businesses speak out on safety issues in Oakland.” CBS News. December 8th, 2023.

[4] Gerber, Dana. “Here’s why your body wash, deodorant, and toothpaste are locked up at the drugstore.” The Boston Globe. November 23rd, 2022.

[5] Lofstrom, Magnus, and Martin, Brandon. “Crime Trends in California.” Public Policy Institute of California. October 2023.

[6] Gramlich, John. “What the data says about crime in the U.S.” Pew Research Center. April 24th, 2024.

[7] Bickerton, James. “California Progressives Face Growing Anger Over Soft Approach to Crime.” Newsweek. August 10th, 2023.

[8] Vankin, Jonathan. “Homelessness and Crime: California’s Hot-Button Political Issues Are Even More Complex Than You Think.” California Local. June 17th, 2022.

[9] Anderson, Jeffery H. “Correcting Newsom’s Claims About Crime.” City Journal. December 7th, 2023.

[10] Castleman, Terry. “A troubling California trend: More violent crimes with guns even as restrictions tighten.” The Los Angeles Times. October 6th, 2023.

[11] Wolfe, Eli and Bondgraham, Darwin. “Recall campaign against District Attorney Pamela Price has spent $2.2M.” The Oaklandside. February 2nd, 2024.

[12] Akinnibi et al. “Cities Say They Want to Defund the Police. Their Budgets Say Otherwise.” Bloomberg. January 12th, 2021.

[13] Lofstrom et al. “Arrests in California.” Public Policy Institute of California. January 2024.

[14] Bickerton, James. “Oakland NAACP Blames 'Defund the Police' for Rampant Crime in City.” Newsweek. July 28th, 2023.

[15] The Editorial Board. “Refunding the San Francisco Police.” The Wall Street Journal. December 16th, 2021.

[16] Vankin, Jonathan. “Homelessness and Crime: California’s Hot-Button Political Issues Are Even More Complex Than You Think.” The Califonia Local. June 17th, 2022.

[17] Buggs, Shani. “Violence increased most in marginalized neighborhoods early in the COVID-19 pandemic.” UC Davis Health. December 9th, 2021.