Governor vows state help in cracking down on LA rail theft

·4 min read

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is promising statewide coordination as law enforcement and prosecutors go after thieves who have been raiding cargo containers aboard trains near downtown Los Angeles for months, leaving the tracks blanketed with discarded boxes.

The governor on Thursday joined a cleanup crew from the state Department of Transportation filling dozens of trash bags with crushed cardboard from packages stolen on their way from retailers to people across the U.S.

Last week TV news stations aired overhead video showing thousands of boxes strewn by thieves along a Union Pacific rail line northeast of downtown in the Lincoln Park area. Footage from NBC4 showed two men, one holding what looked like bolt cutters, walking along the tracks.

“It looked like a third world country, these images, the drone images that were on the nightly news,” Newsom told reporters gathered Thursday along the cleaned up tracks.

The governor said his new budget proposal includes funds to expand the Organized Retail Theft Task Force created last year when Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities saw organized groups of roving thieves carrying out smash-and-grab robberies at retail stores.

The train thieves are equally organized and need to be prosecuted as such, Newsom said.

“These folks are arrested as if they are individuals that are not going connected to the whole, and we need to change that,” he said.

At least 280 arrests have been made in connection with the train thefts, the governor said. But he didn't know over what period the arrests occurred or where they are in the prosecution process.

In December, Union Pacific sent a letter to LA County District Attorney George Gascón’s urging more aggressive prosecutions for cargo thieves and calling for an end to a no-bail policy for some defendants aimed at reducing overcrowding at jails during the coronavirus pandemic.

“These individuals are generally caught and released back onto the streets in less than twenty-four hours. Criminals boast to our officers that charges will be pled down to simple trespassing — which bears no serious consequence," the letter said.

A statewide policy of imposing $0 bail for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies ended in 2020, but it was kept in place within the LA County Superior Court system. Republicans have repeatedly called for an end to zero-bail.

“Criminals know how to exploit California’s policies for their gain," said state Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk, whose district includes northern LA County.

Gascón's office said it was “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.”

"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," said Alex Bastian, Special Advisor to Gascón.

A group of Republican U.S. Representatives on Thursday 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.

The California Highway Patrol said it was expanding its own retail theft task force that will allow it to beef up patrols and better coordinate with police, the sheriff's department and Union Pacific's security force. Union Pacific and other railroad firms employ their own police forces accredited by the state to protect its rail lines.

CHP Captain Charlie Sampson said the task force's expansion will allow for more patrol officers and investigators.

“We’ve already assign the personnel for it, and the commander that’s going to oversee it,” Sampson said. “And it’s going to be a full time effort.”

On Wednesday, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said a specialized unit within his department that focused on cargo thefts was eliminated because of funding cuts. He said his office, along with Union Pacific and federal agencies, are working on a plan to add more security and patrols along the tracks.