Study: Bay Area Crime, What Residents Really Think

Crime rates and perceptions of safety have long been hot-button topics in the Bay Area. At a statistical level, crime rates vary widely throughout the Bay Area. The region has some of the safest cities in the United States, as well as some of the most dangerous.

If you read media reports about Bay Area crime, it often sounds like the whole Bay Area is a giant drug den, filled with illicit behavior and shady characters. If a single grocery stores closes, it’s a national news story.

Does that reflect the experience on the ground, though? To get a clearer picture, we decided to ask Bay Area residents for their real thoughts about the region’s crime. Using an online platform, we asked a group of self-identified Bay Area residents how crime impacted–or didn’t impact–their daily lives.

This study shares our findings, which are useful if you’re planning to visit the Bay Area. Patterns emerge, and individual experiences color opinions, but one thing is clear — Bay Area residents view the issue through different lenses and were concerned about crime (especially property crime), but most regions of the Bay Area are not the crime-ridden places we often see portrayed in the media.

Key Takeaways

  • Perceptions of crime depended heavily on location. Residents felt that some parts of the Bay Area were much safer than others.
  • Residents often felt that property crime was more of a concern than violent crime in most Bay Area cities. Official stats confirm this.
  • Many residents felt that negative media portrayals of Bay Area crime were inaccurate, or may even contribute to increasing crime in the region

Basic Findings

We received 30 responses to our survey, many with detailed explanations of residents’ feelings. We attempted to classify the general sentiment of each response into “positive,” “negative,” and “mixed” feelings about Bay Area crime.

Overall, half of the respondents (15) had negative feelings about crime, six had positive feelings, and 9 had mixed or conflicting feelings.

Overall SentimentPercent of Respondents

Of the responses, 10 mentioned property crime as a major problem.

Dependent on Location

A common theme throughout the survey is the idea that experiences with crime heavily depend on where in the Bay Area someone resides or frequents.

As one respondent explained, “I lived in Oakland, and crime was everywhere… Now I live in Hayward and haven’t really thought about crime in years.” Others echo this sentiment, adding that certain parts of Oakland can feel like well-lit enclaves, only for an aura of darkness and negative energy to appear a few blocks away.

Residents in San Francisco echoed that thinking: “I live in sf in dogpatch and I walk several times per week through the soma, tenderloin and civic center areas. It’s better than it was during or a couple years before the pandemic,” one person wrote.

Some respondents also pointed out that safety varies by ethnic or cultural group, or by appearance. “Some groups of people don’t have to ever worry about that stuff while other people like Asians need to worry about that 24/7,” one respondent pointed out.

Official statistics from the FBI (analyzed in various publications) appear to back these perceptions up. While Oakland, California had among the highest crime rates (and the most violent crimes) of major American cities, other Bay Area cities like San Ramon, California and Sunnyvale, California were ranked among the safest.

Official data also shows that California’s violent crime rates have indeed decreased since a high in 2017.


Experiences of Safety Vary

Despite these variances, residents overall feeling of safety is generally positive. A respondent who lives in Oakland stated, “I (overall) do not worry about crime in my day-to-day life. Crime rates are down from the highs of the 80s/90s.”

Others, though, questioned how well the official statistics reflect daily experience. They wrote: “I don’t fully trust the stats that* say crime is down. When I lived in an apartment, my garage was broken into and the police told me due to prop 47 they saw crimes spike.”

Another resident added, “Crime exists. I get it. It feels like it’s worse, but I have no hard evidence.” This perception may stem from the reality that most of the high-profile crimes such as robberies, shootings or other violent acts occur in specific areas like San Francisco or Oakland.

Many residents cited an overall disregard for laws and safety as a concern, moreso than actual crime, identifying factors like “drugs, fare evading, prostitution, aggressive homelessness, lawlesness in drivers” as big Bay Area concerns.

Again, location and personal experience with crime–even small property crimes–seems to make a major impact on perceptions of crime in the Bay Area.

Property Crime vs. Violent Crime

Another recurring theme in the survey responses revolves around a distinction made between violent crimes and property crimes, particularly in regard to the sense of safety experienced by respondents.

Many Bay Area residents are more concerned with property crimes like car break-ins, catalytic converter thefts or package thefts, rather than violent crimes. According to a survey participant, “Violent crimes generally aren’t a major concern, but petty crimes and ‘trashy’ crimes do seem to be visibly going up.”

Another said, “property crime in the city is a problem, but it’s been a problem for decades and cops can’t be bothered to do anything about it. violent crime is pretty much a fever dream by all of the nervous nellies and the rightwing s*** stains trying to make money pushing that narrative.”

Another respondent wrote: “I’ve had a car stolen…my girlfriend, just had the wheels off of her car stolen from in front of our house, and I have no doubt that property crime is on the rise. That being said, I don’t worry about my teenage son walking around at night.

In other words, property crime may be a reality–and a visible presence–in many Bay Area cities. But many residents still feel safe walking around, as they don’t fear violent crime as much.

Official statistics support this distinction. According to the San Francisco Police Department, as we write this in 2023, San Francisco has experienced 8,603 instances of theft in 2023, 1,571 burglaries, and 1,183 vehicle thefts, but only 13 homicides.

Source: San Francisco Police Department

The Influence of Media and Anecdotal Evidence

Media portrayal of crime in the Bay Area plays a significant role in shaping residents’ perceptions. One respondent claimed that the national media “vastly overplays the situation in S.F.”, while another suggested that there is a general “lawlessness” that may be more a result of media bias creeping into consciousness than genuine occurrences.

On the other hand, the influence of anecdotal evidence cannot be overlooked when discussing residents’ views on crime. Sharing a few harrowing stories, one respondent concluded, “It’s very real. I hear about crime happening all the time in my former neighborhood… so I take everyone’s anecdotal evidence, even those quoting statistics, and projecting it all onto the big picture with a grain of salt.”

Some residents questioned whether the region really differs from other major cities, writing “some things the media tends to overblow it more than it is really an issue. You visit any major country’s capital, or at least the economic flagship cities, you are bound to run into similar issues.”

Residents blamed the media, but also political leaders, for perceived increases in crime, as well as the response: “The difference I notice is that now there is way less punishment and consequences and criminals are more emboldened. I also notice that many politicians seem to care more about the criminals that the victims,” one person wrote.

Unique Experiences Shape Perspectives

Ultimately, the survey responses exhibit that Bay Area residents have their unique experiences and perspectives on local crime. The reality of living in the Bay Area varies drastically depending on location and communities within the region. While some may feel confident walking around long past dusk, others admit to being more wary when going outside.

Although crime rates may be on the decline from previous decades, concerns remain, particularly around property crime – a reality for many who live in certain parts of the region.

Furthermore, media portrayals and the sharing of anecdotal experiences continue to shape the perceptions of Bay Area residents towards crime in their communities.

Overall Results

Overall, we found:

  • Location influenced perceptions of crime. Specifically, residents seemed to feel that San Francisco had more property crime and general lawlessness, whereas cities like Oakland had more violent crime. This is consistent with official statistics.
  • Residents often felt that property crime was more of a concern than violent crime in most Bay Area cities. Theft, burglaries, catalytic converter thefts, and other crimes were major concerns.
  • Many residents felt that negative media portrayals of Bay Area crime were overblown, or may even contribute to increasing crime in the region. Many residents citied statistics about decreasing crime in the region, but some questioned how accurately these reflect lived experiences.

Our survey is non-scientific, and respondents were self-selected, and self-reported their residence. The method is response (an online discussion platform) could also have influenced responses. Still, their responses appear to mirror official statistics and data on the region, providing a valuable non-statistical picture.

The message for visitors and potential residents is clear. Property crime is a concern in many Bay Area cities, and the majority of Bay Area respondents were indeed concerned about crime.

Yet many felt that media portrayals of Bay Area crime were overblown, and most Bay Area regions are overall relatively safe. Many residents felt safe walking around their region at night.

If you’re planning to visit the Bay Area, you should take the same precautions you’d take in any major metro area, and should be especially careful about preventing property crime by locking your car, hiding valuables, etc. But you shouldn’t let negative, sensationalized news stories from outsiders prevent you from visiting this incredible destination.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.
Back to top button