By Matt McFarland and Cheri Mossburg, CNN
Photos and videos showing piles of empty boxes littered alongside rail tracks in Los Angeles County, California have gone viral as shipping companies say they’ve seen a dramatic spike in railroad theft. Some of the boxes are packages from companies like UPS, Amazon and FedEx.
Union Pacific, one of the country’s largest railroad companies, says it may avoid operating in Los Angeles County following the spike in thefts, which it blames on lax prosecution of crimes. The containers and trains are locked, but can be broken into.
Union Pacific said last month in a letter to the Los Angeles District Attorney that it saw a 160% year-over-year increase in theft in LA county. The company claims that a December 2020 special directive issued by District Attorney George Gascón that changed how low-level offenses are prosecuted has contributed to the uptick.
Union Pacific said in its letter that in the last three months of the year it made over 100 arrests of “active criminals vandalizing our trains” in partnership with the LA police department and Los Angeles Sherriff department. But Union Pacific, which has its own police department with jurisdiction over the 32,000 miles of tracks it owns, said that even as it has expanded its security resources and partnered more closely with local law enforcement, the problem isn’t going away. After being arrested individuals are released from custody within 24 hours, it said.
Crime is associated with increases in poverty, which has increased during the pandemic. The county’s directive was intended to combat social ills that come from misdemeanor convictions, such as difficulties with employment, housing, education, government benefits and immigration.
“Studies show that prosecution of the offenses driving the bulk of misdemeanor cases have minimal, or even negative, long-term impacts on public safety,” Gascón said when the directive was issued.
“Our 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,” Alex Bastian, Special Advisor to District Attorney Gascón said when reached for comment.
“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. Our office takes Union Pacific’s concerns seriously and hopes to discuss this issue more in the coming weeks,” he added.
“While we understand the well-intended social justice goals of the policy, we need our justice system to support our partnership efforts with local law enforcement, hold these criminals accountable, and most important, help protect our employees and the critical local and national rail network,” Guerrero said.
The Association of American Railroads expressed concern about the crime increase.
“In coordination with local law and where necessary federal law enforcement partners, the industry is committed to pursuing all avenues necessary to address this criminal behavior,” spokesman Ted Greener said in a statement.
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