In recent weeks, national attention became focused on photos and videos showing Union Pacific rail tracks littered with discarded cartons and boxes following organized looting just east of downtown Los Angeles.
Many of the packages that hadn’t been stolen or damaged would head toward Chicago or Canada before they finally reach the doorsteps of their recipients, including one that contained a picture of a family dressed in festive attire.
Many factors are said to be behind the cargo theft surge in Los Angeles, including the supply chain bottleneck that causes trains to pause longer on tracks, a lack of Union Pacific special agents patrolling along the tracks, the presence of homeless encampments near rail lines, and—according to several experts who spoke with The Epoch Times—the lax prosecution policies under Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón.
Between October and December of 2021, Union Pacific special agents and other law enforcement agencies made at least 100 arrests along the tracks in Los Angeles, according to a company statement.
The Union Pacific Police Department has primary jurisdiction over crimes committed on the company’s rail tracks.
Its special agents have arresting powers and work with local law enforcement agencies, such as the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and California Highway Patrol.
Police can arrest people on tracks for trespassing, but not theft, often due to lack of evidence.
“Theft is hard to prove unless you actually catch them in the act,” John Jay College of Criminal Justice adjunct professor Joseph Giacalone, a retired detective sergeant, told The Epoch Times. “If you did not catch them in the act, they say, ‘Well, I found this on the street.’ How do you prove or disprove that?”
However, trespassing is one misdemeanor that Gascón has ordered his office to no longer prosecute.
On Dec. 7, 2020, his first day in office, Gascón told his staff to stop prosecuting a group of misdemeanors including trespassing, disturbing the peace, loitering, being under the influence of a controlled substance, and resisting arrest.
While each district attorney has the discretion to deviate from Gascón’s new policy, they must consult with a supervisor, document their reasoning in writing, and record the supervisor’s determination in the case file.
Most of the 100 arrests made by Union Pacific and other agencies during the past three months didn’t go anywhere. Fewer than half of those arrested were booked, according to a Union Pacific spokesperson.
“Gascón’s misdemeanor policy does not permit prosecutors to file trespass or loitering in most situations,” Kathleen Cady, a former Los Angeles prosecutor, told The Epoch Times. “Without these tools, criminals can trespass, loiter, steal, get arrested, get released, and repeat over and over again.”
Giacalone thinks Gascón’s policy invites more people to commit crimes.
“The problem that comes into this now is that people who would normally not partake in this type of behavior look at it and say, ‘There is really no risk to this. If I get caught, I’m just going to get let go. No big deal,’” he said.
In 2021, Gascón’s office received only 47 cases from law enforcement in which Union Pacific was a victim. That number was 56 in 2020, according to the office.
However, in 2021, Union Pacific saw a 160 percent increase in criminal rail theft in Los Angeles County compared to 2020, according to a company statement.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice emerita professor Dorothy Schulz thinks that one of the reasons behind the drop in the number of cases brought to prosecutors in 2021 was a demoralized police force.
“When prosecutors just won’t prosecute, after a while it becomes not sensible for police to continue to bring those cases to them,” Schulz told The Epoch Times.
Out of the 47 cases, 27 were charged by Gascón’s office, including both felonies and misdemeanor offenses alleging burglary, theft, and receiving stolen property.
Ten cases were declined for filing because of a lack of evidence.
Another 10 were declined because Gascón’s office deemed the alleged offenses unfit for prosecution, such as a homeless person being within 20 feet of the tracks and simple possession of drugs for personal use, according to Gascón’s office.
The Epoch Times reached out to Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office for comment, but didn’t receive a reply by press time.
In a public letter to Union Pacific, Gascón said the railroad company had done a poor job of securing containers and had lowered the number of agents patrolling the area in 2021.
“We can ensure that appropriate cases are filed and prosecuted; however, my office is not tasked with keeping your sites secure and the District Attorney alone cannot solve the major issues facing your organization,” Gascón said.
Union Pacific just transferred more special agents to the Los Angeles tracks, according to an email to The Epoch Times. The company also added drones, fencing, and trespass detection systems.
California Gov. Gavin Newson plans to send $255 million to local law enforcement agencies to hire more officers to combat theft-related crimes, as part of his Real Public Safety Plan.