Theft in San Francisco – “Hot Pursuit” with Gio Benitez – 20/20

Assignment 4 in my interviewing class was to “reverse-engineer” a news story.  The purpose of this assignment was to research how journalists obtain information.  I chose a “Hot Pursuit” episode of 20/20 in which Gio Benitez investigates theft issues in San Francisco.  Below is my report.

Theft is a common crime committed all across the country and the world every day.  According to Gio Benitez of ABC News it is a “plague” in San Francisco.  In a 20/20 “Hot Pursuit” episode that aired December 5, 2014 and again July 3, 2015, Benitez travels to California to check out just what is going on.

At the beginning of the program he states that he and his team had spent a year gathering information on theft crimes in San Francisco in preparation for this assignment.  The most popular items stolen, he mentions, are smartphones, tablets, laptops, and musical instruments.  The most popular is bicycles.  Many people use bikes as their primary means of transportation in this city.  Benitez explains how many of the victims never have their property returned to them.

Throughout the hour we see Benitez work along side a professional tracker named Jason Cecchecitini who creates tracking devices with better radio signal than a normal GPS, as well as the San Francisco Police Department.  As a team they plant some expensive merchandise that they purchase and set it up with trackers and hidden cameras in the area to get an idea of just what happens.  In one instance a man is arrested.

They meet up with a resident named Greg Schuler who has had several bikes stolen from him over the years.  None of which have ever been returned to him.  With a bicycle planted we see a theft happen and caught on camera.  Schuler reports the bike stolen to the police and the news team sets out on pursuit of the property.  The trackers shows that the bike travels from Schuler’s residence to a storage facility outside of San Francisco to the neighboring city of Oakland where the tracking system signal leads them to a specific unit which is locked up.  

The next morning we find out that the bike is on the move and ends up in a flea market in Oakland.  Benitez and his team locate the bike and purchase it for $200.  They then confront the man selling it and the situation gets quite heated when the seller claims he purchased it from a neighboring flea market and Benitez argues that they know he is lying.  The seller gives them their money back and allows them to take the bike as well.  They never find or catch the actual their who stole the bike from Schuler’s home.  

In another situation a $400 guitar is planted in a car with the window left down.  The cameras catch a woman knows as “Smiley” take it.  When she is found by the team she has sold it to a pawn shop for $20.  She along with the team visit the store and get the guitar back.  She informs Benitez that she never even looked at he guitar, but she only wanted the money for drugs.  She expresses how her life has gone down hill and she feels that she is on “self-destruct.”

Throughout the program Benitez mentions several facts and information that he had gathered before heading out to California.  He mentions Prop 47 which was passed in 2014 in California.  This talks about how penalties and sentencing was reduced for crimes of a non-violent nature.  Crimes of theft were part of that.  According to Benitez this was a provocative subject that did not necessarily sit well with police.  I would believe that this information would have been found via public records like those that we studied previously.  He could have done a public records search on theft and located information like this.  

Benitez also mentions several statistics.  “Every 53 seconds a laptop is stolen in the US.”  He also mentions that over three million cell phones are stolen a year.  This information could also be accessed by searching through polls and statistic research on theft crimes.

The team from 20/20 worked very closely with the San Francisco Police Department in planting and executing the setups for the crimes.  Benitez also explains how the police department’s bike bust operation works.  No doubt he would have spent time interviewing several officers and maybe the police chief to obtain access to these meetings and learn how these officers go undercover to catch the bicycle thieves.

Victims like Greg Schuler have reported multiple burglaries and thefts in the past.  Schuler mentions also that none of his bikes have ever been returned.  Benitez would have found out about the multiple police reports by searching through files.  I would think he may have contacted several victims of multiples thefts to see if they would be willing to participate in this investigative report.

At the end of the program we see Benitez returning to San Francisco five months later to follow up on some of the people he encountered  or worked with during his time there.  This is one thing I may have done a bit different.  I would like to say I would have tried to check in a little bit sooner.  Two of the people he has spoken with from the first time were no where to be found, which is hoped was a good thing.  

The big thing that I saw as an error was the confrontation with the bike seller at the flea market.  During this heated argument Benitez got very defensive and argued with the man and basically accused him of lying.  As a journalist I may have asked some one of different authority to counter arguments such as a former police chief who was also on the team.  As the reporter I would be there to ask questions perhaps in response to the arguments instead of arguing that the individual was lying.

All in all I thought this to be a pretty thorough investigation and a great way to raise awareness of the “theft plague” that expands across our country.  It would definitely encourage viewers to keep an eye out for their personal belongings.

Have you ever been robbed?  Tell me about it and share your thoughts in the comments.

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