Governor promises crackdown on railroad cargo thefts

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Saying images of looted packages littering a stretch of Union Pacific railroad tracks near downtown Los Angeles “look like a third-world country,” Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the site Jan. 20 to announce a multi-agency push to clean up the mess, along with planned state efforts to combat the rampant theft that produced it.

But District Attorney George Gascón blamed the railroad for the situation, saying Union Pacific doesn’t do enough to ensure its trains are adequately locked and protected.

In a letter to Union Pacific General Director of Public Affairs Adrian Guerrero, the district attorney said that the Los Angeles Police Department has determined that the railroad “does little to secure or lock trains and has significantly decreased law enforcement staffing.”

“It is very telling that other major railroad operations in the area are not facing the same level of theft at their facilities as UP,” Gascón’s letter said.

Guerrero wrote to the district attorney last month, suggesting that Gascón’s decision to dismiss certain misdemeanors such as trespassing has resulted in a spike in railway container theft that cost Union Pacific an estimated $5 million.

According to statistics cited by Guerrero, train container theft increased by 160% from 2020 to 2021 in L.A. County, with more than 90 containers broken into every day on the average.

Gascón said Jan. 21 that his office recently conducted a review of cases submitted for filing consideration over the last three years in which Union Pacific is listed as a victim and found that the number actually dropped in 2021.

In 2019, 78 cases were presented for filing; in 2020, 56 cases were presented for filing; and in a “sharp decline,” 47 such cases involving Union Pacific were presented for filing consideration last year, Gascón wrote, with over half of those filed by the D.A.’s office for prosecution.

The charges filed included both felony and misdemeanor offenses alleging burglary, theft, and receiving stolen property, the D.A. wrote.

“Of the 20 cases that were declined for filing, 10 were not filed due to the insufficiency of the evidence presented to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, which is our ethical standard to file a criminal case,” Gascón said. “The other 10 declined matters involved offenses such as allegations of unhoused individuals within 20 feet of the railroad tracks and simple possession of drugs for personal use — not allegations of burglary, theft, or tampering. Although homelessness is a serious issue, it is not one that we can fix through expending resources of the criminal legal system.”

A train derailment Jan. 15 at the intersection of San Pablo Street and Valley Boulevard, near the County-USC Medical Center and the USC Health Science Campus, was blamed on thousands of empty boxes behind by cargo thieves. Seventeen railroad cars were derailed but no injuries were reported.

Newson, visiting the site five days after the derailment, said what happened on that stretch of railroad tracks was unacceptable.

Wearing a trucker cap and black T-shirt while helping cleanup crews make a dent along the garbage-strewn tracks, Newsom said, “We are committed to an all-of-government approach to prevent thefts, prosecute the criminals involved and clean up local communities.”

The governor said that, in the short term, Caltrans cleanup crews will assist Union Pacific workers over the next few days.

Longer term, he said, the California Highway Patrol will continue its efforts to coordinate with local law enforcement to help prevent theft on railways in Los Angeles.

“How do we make sure we don’t have to keep coming back?” Newsom asked. “How do we secure this site? How do we do a better job in making sure that this doesn’t have to continue to happen?

“This is the supply chain. I know all of us are focused down on the water, it’s so damn beautiful, and everybody’s just focused on containers at the ports, the supply chain. “But, that’s just one part of the supply chain.”

The governor made no secret of his anger at the looting and the litter.

“If I’m intense about this it’s because this gets my blood boiling,” he said while at another point adding, “As we were out there cleaning up, we saw memories that never were because gifts never arrived.”

Last month, Newsom proposed his Real Public Safety Plan, which in part addresses the rail-theft issue.

The plan calls for bolstering local law enforcement response, supporting prosecutors and getting guns and drugs off the streets.

It also includes $255 million in grants for local law enforcement to increase their presence at retail locations and combat organized retail crime, along with $18 million to create a dedicated state team of special investigators and prosecutors to prosecute cross-jurisdictional theft-related crimes.

In addition, it would create a permanent Smash and Grab Enforcement Unit operated by CHP to work with local law enforcement to crack down on organized rail, retail and auto theft across the state.

Newsom said operations that fence stolen goods need to be another target of increased state and local efforts.

“We need to go after these fencing operations. We need to go after the back end of this,” he added. “A lot of this stuff ends up on platforms you’ve shopped on. Some of you have bought some of this stuff that was not in those boxes because they ended up on some online platform at a remarkably discounted price.

“You ever ask yourselves how anyone makes money at that remarkably discounted price?”

Newsom said he wasn’t focused on who’s to blame for the rash in rail thefts, preferring to concentrate on solutions to preventing it from being repeated. But some Republicans lambasted “criminals-first” policies for exacerbating the problem.

“Criminals know how to exploit California’s policies for their gain,” Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita said in a statement. “Fancy press conferences by the governor are not going to discourage one single crime. Californians deserve safer communities, and Republicans look forward to fighting for every neighbor, retailer and employer who is fed up with the Democrats’ ‘criminals-first’ public safety agenda.”

A group of local Republican Congress members sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland calling for federal assistance in cracking down on thefts that have disrupted the supply chain.

“In addition, it is important to note that many of these purchases are not just delivered throughout the state of California, but also throughout the United States, affecting interstate and international commerce,” the letter stated. “Therefore, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice play a vital role in federally prosecuting the epidemic of robberies on all freight transportation.”

 

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