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Off the Rails in L.A.

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eye on the news

Off the Rails in L.A.

Lax prosecutions are driving a surge in package thefts for Union Pacific Railroad. January 18, 2022
California
Public safety
Politics and law

Still waiting for holiday gifts to arrive by mail? Wonder why it’s taking so long for your Covid test kits, EpiPens, new phones, computers, high-priced bikes, and other valuable goods to arrive? If your package was on a Union Pacific train travelling through Los Angeles, it might now be in the hands of thieves or fencers of stolen goods. Or, if it wasn’t worth their while, it may be lying next to the tracks alongside many other packages with shipping labels from the U.S. Post Office, United Parcel Service, Federal Express, and Amazon. These recent rail thefts are an example of what happens when a progressive prosecutor—in this case Los Angeles County district attorney George Gascón—virtually eliminates nonviolent property crimes from a state’s penal codes by declining to prosecute such cases.

In mid-December 2021, Adrian Guerrero, Union Pacific’s general director for California and Pacific Northwest operations, wrote to Gascón asking him to reconsider his December 2020 Special Directive 20-07, directing county attorneys to decline to prosecute or dismiss before arraignment charges including trespassing; loitering; being in possession or under the influence of drugs, drug paraphernalia, or alcohol; and making criminal threats or resisting arrest. All these offenses are likely to occur on the stretches of railroad property where package thefts are common.

In his letter, Guerrero pointed to a 160 percent year-over-year increase in thefts in L.A. County, noting that, in the three months leading up to the 2021 holiday season, more than 90 cargo containers per day were “compromised,” and that assaults and armed robberies of Union Pacific employees were increasing. Guerrero estimated that the increase in thefts has resulted in approximately $5 million in claims, losses, and damage to Union Pacific in the last year, and that both UPS and FedEx were considering diverting rail business away from L.A. Moving parcel classification and routing away from L.A. will likely result in a loss of local jobs and economic activity beyond its impact on Union Pacific, which has other facilities located through the western U.S.

Last week, a special adviser in Gascón’s office issued a terse statement to CBS Los Angeles investigative reporter Kristine Lazar saying that his office is “committed to working with law enforcement to ensure collective safety across Los Angeles County’s sprawling infrastructure, whether it’s at our ports or on railroad tracks.” The statement continued: “Some cases presented to our office by Union Pacific have been filed, such as burglary and grand theft, while others have been declined due to insufficient evidence. We make charging decisions based on the evidence.” The statement concluded with no sense of urgency: “Our office takes Union Pacific’s concerns seriously and hopes to discuss this issue more in the coming weeks.”

Union Pacific has few options. It has increased the number of its special agents, making dozens of arrests and teaming with the LAPD, the County Sheriff’s Department, and the California Highway Patrol to make hundreds more, but prosecutors, according to Guerrero’s letter, have not contacted the railroad for any court proceedings. Union Pacific is also using drones to patrol the tracks leading to the train yard in the Lincoln Heights area and has added fencing and trespass-detention systems.

But more special agents or help from other police departments aren’t enough to deter the thieves and scavengers. Photos of them in the Los Angeles Times and on Twitter reminded me, as a Conrail Police captain in the early 1980s, of an area of Hoboken, New Jersey, that my cops, many of whom were Vietnam veterans, called the Ho Chi Minh Trail because of the difficulty of getting trains through it unmolested. Like Union Pacific’s trains, our trains moved slowly on a single track, making it possible for thieves to jump them and take their pick of the goods. The difference is that, back then, we had the cooperation of the local DA. We knew that cargo theft couldn’t be stopped if arrestees weren’t prosecuted.

Earlier this month, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva brought the case of three gang members and one associate charged in the death of an off-duty LAPD officer to the U.S. Attorney of the Central District of California to initiate federal charges. He took the case to a federal prosecutor after “not satisfactory” discussions with Gascón’s office that led him to believe the DA would prosecute it as a simple murder, without gun or gang enhancements. LAPD Chief Michel Moore concurred with the move, thanking U.S. Attorney Tracy Wilkison “for bringing the full weight of the government against this gang, against these individuals.”

It doesn’t seem likely that Gascón will take any of this into consideration. After all, if local law enforcement can’t trust Gascón to prosecute to the fullest those accused of killing a cop, what chance is there that he will get tough on package theft?

Photo by Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images

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