This post is a very condensed summary of an article that appeared in The Atlantic Magazine, November 2019, written by Lauren Smiley, entitled The Porch Pirate of Potrero Hill Can’t Believe It Came to This. I have left out virtually all names, since Ms. Smiley apparently had permission to mention them, and I do not. I also refrained from mentioning the race of any person involved, because this article was not about race, and because my personal experience with people like the “Porch Pirate”, who I will henceforth call PP, involved women of many races. I have re-written parts of the article to make it flow better, since I had to leave out so much. My story begins in 2009, when I volunteered to provide financial counseling to a group of homeless, single mothers, who were living at Haven of Hope, a women’s shelter in Wenatchee, Wa. More about that at the end. http://www.hospitalityministries.org/
The first time she 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 woman in a neon hoodie plucking some bundles off his San Francisco stoop. After arriving home that afternoon, the Googler got in his Subaru to hunt for any remnants strewn around the streets of his Potrero Hill neighborhood. Instead, he spotted the thief 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. While sitting nearby in his car, he played the Nest Cam tape for them and the police pulled a $107.66 Apple Magic Keyboard from her purse and black tar heroin from her coin pocket. The officers wrote her a ticket with a court date a month later. “I thought it was just a ticket, and that was it,” she said.
It was only about nine months later, in May 2017, when one of the porch pirate’s neighbors plastered photos of her, “Wanted”-style, on Nextdoor, that she realized things were about to get worse. Nextdoor is an online ticker tape of homeowner and tenant concerns, and the grievances can be particularly telling in a city of Dickensian extremes like San Francisco, whose influx of tech wealth is increasingly pitting suburban expectations against urban realities. The city’s property crime rate is among the highest in the United States. Nextdoor posts about dogs slurping from a public drinking fountain and Whole Foods overcharging again (“Be on guard”) show up alongside reports of smash-and-grab car break-ins, slashed tires, and an entire crime sub-genre of “porch pirates,” the Artful Dodgers of the Amazon age.
Soon, a modern-day epic feud, reminiscent of the Hatfields vs. McCoys, of PP vs. Neighbors of Potrero Hill, broke out, aided by a mini-surveillance state of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone recordings that would highlight the complexities of race and class relations in the prototype liberal, gentrifying city of San Francisco. The clash would also expose a national debate about who is responsible, and who is to blame, for the city’s increasingly unlivable conditions. (Yes, San Francisco’s travails, as well as those of California, has become a national debate) Parts of Potrero Hill feel like the sort of place where Amazon deliveries could sit undisturbed on your stoop. The hill’s western ridge, overlooking the city, is filled with cozy bungalows and Victorian houses that once were affordable for San Francisco’s working and artistic classes but have appreciated during the tech rush; now, most of them sell for well over a million dollars. The public hospital where PP was born is now named after Mark Zuckerberg. The homeless have set up camp around the neighborhood, too, the city’s homeless population having spiked 30 percent in the last two years.
Years ago, her doctors had started PP on painkillers after complications giving birth to her son, and she liked how “sociable” she felt when taking them. Since the pills were pricey, she turned to heroin and, later, meth. She’d been in legal trouble as a young teen — for swiping more than $400 from Walmart, a misdemeanor, while cashiering—but the drug use compounded her problems. In 2006, PP was convicted of a felony, for stealing more than $400 worth of gift cards while working at Macy’s. For a while, she and her son stayed at a girlfriend’s place and then a homeless shelter. In 2009, they landed a unit back in Potrero’s public housing, but the stability didn’t solve her problems. After her daughter’s birth, in 2010, Child Protective Services (CPS) took both of her children because of her alleged drug use. Within a year, after she got clean and started trekking daily to a methadone clinic, she got her kids back. Yet around that time, PP relapsed on drugs, and the deliveries that were dropped daily on her neighbors’ porches caught her attention. At that point, she didn’t know about the cameras or Nextdoor. In the months that followed, the police would find a cache of the neighbors’ belongings and mail in her possession. Her sister said that PP generally sold the packages “for a little bit of nothing, just to get high,” or ate any deliveries that contained food. (Police say thieves generally sell their pickings on eBay, Craigslist, or to middlemen, who may hawk them at flea markets.). She thought the packages would be replaced by Amazon and other senders, so her gain wouldn’t be her neighbors’ loss. “That’s what eased my conscience taking someone’s property, because I’m not a bad person, it was just a bad choice,” PP said. “I was in a desperate state.”
Perhaps a bigger threat to Amazon than the cost of replacing stolen goods is any hitch in its famously seamless service. In February 2018, Amazon acquired Ring, the smart doorbell and camera company. The official reason was to buoy neighborhood and home security, though much of that crime would be people swiping Amazon packages. (Nest, one of Ring’s main competitors, is owned by Google.) Currently, 17 percent of American homeowners have a smart video surveillance device, and unit sales are expected to double by 2023. (PP was caught on Nest and another cam called Kuna, and several neighbors filmed her on their phones.) The popularity of these devices has led to the “porch pirate gotcha” film genre, a sort of America’s Funniest Home Videos of petty crime. In 2018, a 30-something white woman became viral international news for stealing boxes from 21 Dallas neighbors while looking like she was on her way to yoga class. “She’s blond and a former model, and it makes it explode,” her attorney said.
In some cities, the relationship between the police and companies has gone beyond marketing. Amazon is helping police departments run “bait box” operations, in which police place decoy boxes on porches-often with GPS trackers inside-to capture anyone who tries to steal them. After receiving news about the Jersey City sting’s early success— seven arrests in three days during a soft launch, and a segment on Good Morning America—Amazon’s Rob Gibson, then a senior program manager for loss prevention, wrote in a December 13 email to the department, “Insane how it took off! How many arrests now? You can bet on it that I am coming out at some point to buy you a beer. You have helped me more than you know here internally. I need a patch and any swag you have so I can rep the PD here in Seattle.”
During the sting, Ring introduced the Jersey City police to another program it offers: Police departments can join a Ring app called Neighbors, on which residents (mostly Ring owners) broadcast their footage to people nearby. If police want to solicit a user’s footage for an active investigation, Ring will send the user an email with the police request; if the user volunteers to cooperate, the footage is sent back to the police, along with the user’s name, address, and email. As part of the pitch to join, Ring offered the Jersey City Police Department a free Ring device for every 20 residents who downloaded the app. San Francisco in late 2017 was the nation’s leader in property crime. In Potrero, PP 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. PP was correct in thinking that, in many cases, Amazon will replace pilfered packages. Her major miscalculation was in thinking that her neighbors would, therefore, just shrug and move on.
December 2017, 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: Cursing out PP by name, cutting off a conference call without explanation and sprinting outside in his socks, he cues up his cellphone camera. He had been keeping an eye out for PP 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 PP’s backpack. As he starts filming, confronting PP in a neighbor’s stairwell, “So what’s going on?” he 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,” PP snipes back. “I pass out flyers every day over here,” she insists—from Nextel (which closed years earlier)–and adds, “Just because I’m (her race self-described) don’t mean I can’t pass out flyers!” In January 2018, the exec took time off from work to attend one of PP’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 he sat in the courtroom, his wife texted that PP wouldn’t be showing up: She was on their stoop that very moment, apparently in the middle of another stealing expedition.
Another time, neighbors were gardening on a shared strip of land when PP passed by balancing a long lamp box on her shoulder. (she claimed that the box contained her own headboard and lampshade.) Seeing an address written in big letters for a home in the opposite direction, one of them grabbed the box and demanded to see an ID to prove PP lived there. A second man called 911 as a woman videoed PP’s ensuing tirade: “That’s why people get shot. You don’t pull somebody’s package off their f**king arm,” PP snapped, then stalked off. By now, she had collected charges (petty theft, mail theft, receiving stolen property, and possession of heroin—all misdemeanors), and tickets for court dates. But PP regularly skipped her hearings—she’d lose track of the dates, 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 PP 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. PP cycled in and out of jail in the following months. She said that with her daughter gone, she sometimes stopped getting her government cash assistance, exacerbating the poverty that had initially led her to steal mail. (She did still get food stamps.) PP said her immediate need for money made it impossible to launch a job hunt. “I live now, today. I have to eat tonight.”
In January 2018, yet another neighbor grabbed a package out of PP’s hand, and signed a citizen’s arrest form, leading to another charge of petty theft. In February, a judge slammed PP 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 PP’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.
In August 2018, PP plunked herself behind the defense table for a four-day blur of disputes over Nick’s solar panel battery switch, Daniel’s Apple keyboard, Alexandra’s HelloFresh groceries, Sorcha’s Montessori books, Micaela’s and Elizabeth’s checks, Samantha’s dog’s probiotics, Jennifer’s, Jabari’s, and Brigette’s United credit cards, and Dell’s hot sauce-representing a total of 23 misdemeanor charges of “petty theft,” “receiving stolen property,” and “mail theft,” plus the drug possession charge for the heroin found in PP’s pocket back in August 2016 when this had all started. The prosecutor told jurors that the case was “not a whodunit: The defendant was caught red-handed stealing, over and over and over again.” Fifteen neighbors testified, and the prosecutor showed jurors the evidence they’d collected: The photo of PP’s daughter sticking her tongue out at one victim. The cellphone video of PP sniping “That’s why people get shot” after the gardening neighbor took the lamp box from her. The spat where she’d called the exec a racist. None of these incidents were charged as crimes but were admitted as evidence of PP’s m.o. As her public defender saw it, PP had been caught in a web of surveillance, gentrification, and racism, in which vigilante neighbors targeted her for anything that went missing, when, in fact, many other porch pirates were also stealing in Potrero. She might have stolen some items, but not everything she was being blamed for taking. “This case is about mob mentality and the lowest-hanging fruit,” her defender declared in his opening statement. “And the lowest-hanging fruit in this case is Ms. PP.”
After a day of deliberations, the jury returned a packet of verdict sheets on which one of them had scrawled “GUILTY,” determining that PP 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. Judge Charles Crompton acknowledged that economic necessity had contributed to PP’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. Having been kicked out of her Potrero unit while in jail and pushed into the city’s growing ranks of homeless people, PP was heartened by the news of the residential program. At least it would be a roof over her head. Then, within a month of arriving at the rehab program, she failed three drug tests—meth, she said—and was kicked out.
Notice that her M.O. was…….what? The combination of excusing her actions, refusal or inability to take any actions that would be prudent, like writing down her court dates, making threats against her accusers, continued “relapsing” every time she was put in a program to get clean, charging the conflict to “racism”, indeed made her “low hanging fruit” for the justice system. I counseled young women in Haven of Hope who were not too dissimilar from PP. I learned of H of H from my church, and initially I went there with my youngest daughter, who was 13 at the time, who wanted to volunteer her time as a babysitter for kids of women who wanted to go on job interviews. While there the first time, I volunteered to counsel the women in how to manage their finances, mainly welfare and child support payments. In most of these cases, drugs were not the underlying cause of either crime or financial ruin. Here is one lesson that summarizes their, and PP’s core problem:
A typical case was April, who came from a middle class home in Montana, and was rebellious as a child (some had abusive parents, but the majority were simply rebellious by nature). April ran around, got pregnant, was jilted by the impregnator (I refuse to call him the father–that honor takes more than impregnating), fought with her parents, lived in her car for awhile after following her impregnator to Washington. By the time she got into H of H, she owed $1,200 in overdue parking tickets, collection agency fees, interest and penalties, and fines for missed court dates. It had started with a single parking ticket for $25. Yes, a single parking ticket, which she could have paid, but chose to ignore, then ignored the summons, then the letter from the district court threatening bigger fines and even jail time, then ignored the letters from the collection agency that Chelan county sold her debt to. By the time a third collection agency got into the act, the letters had become phone calls, initially polite, then increasingly threatening. When I entered the picture, she was afraid to answer the phone, and had fellow residents of H of H cover for her when collectors started trying to find her. $1,200 was serious.
While the circumstances, race, location and actual crimes or misdemeanors of my clients and PP were all different, I can sum up the common M.O.: keep ignoring reality, and assume others are the same way, until you are caught or arrested, then blame everyone but yourself, rinse and repeat. Whether it’s Wenatchee, Washington or San Francisco, California, excessive leniency by the so-called criminal justice system and excuse-making public defenders like PP’s not only don’t help the offenders, but enable them to keep digging themselves a deeper hole. The Atlantic is normally a pretty liberal publication, but the article about PP was increasingly unsympathetic; who wouldn’t be?
I will add another post to this subject within a day or two. While you wait with “bated breath” dear reader, consider what perspective you think the author, Lauren Smiley, is coming from.