Sifting Through the Train Thefts of Los Angeles

Date: Monday, January 24, 2022
Source: The New York Times

The railroad tracks are a wasteland of discarded cartons, envelopes and boxes. Pieces of clothing lie disgorged from packaging and tossed aside. A family photograph, propped up in the garbage, stands sentimental to someone, somewhere, but of no interest to those who loot the tracks of Lincoln Heights.

The authorities in this east Los Angeles neighborhood have been aware for months of the thefts, affecting a busy hub for freight from the West Coast, but the losses have worsened over the last year, they said.

At this section of the tracks, a center for Union Pacific Railroad, trains carrying an array of items, including electronics and jewelry, are reconfigured for routes toward Canada or Chicago, a pause in the journey that has made them targets.

While train theft occurs at other hubs around the country, it is particularly challenging to guard the cargo around Lincoln Heights because of the lay of the land. The tracks dip below street level, putting them out of sight in an urban valley of walls and shipping containers.

“Think of it as a tunnel but without the roof,” said Capt. German Hurtado, the commanding officer of the Hollenbeck area, a division of the Los Angeles Police Department that covers Lincoln Heights. “It provides cover for the thieves.”

It can take just the snip of a zip-tie to get into the cargo, and thefts can be spontaneous crimes of opportunity or organized escapades, the police said.

Some thieves toss goods to vans or trucks on nearby streets, Captain Hurtado said. Things like socks, jewelry, guns, televisions and tires are ripped from packaging. Urns, possibly holding human remains, photographs and other sentimental mementos have been pulled from trains, he added.

“They just throw everything off,” he said.

Detritus from the robberies has lingered around the tracks in Los Angeles County for more than a year, but footage of the garbage-clogged tracks published last week raised new concerns about enforcement, supply chain constraints and how the pandemic has affected jobs.

The footage, taken by a journalist in Los Angeles, John Schreiber, showed him finding a discarded Covid test and a fishing lure in the litter. A CBS report highlighted the problem by contacting people identified on some of the trashed packages. Union Pacific is also investigating the derailment of a train on Saturday in the area, though it is not clear the incident has any relation to thefts or debris.

The section of tracks is periodically cleaned, Union Pacific said, but refuse has continued to pile up there and on other tracks where thefts have taken place.

On Sunday, Union Pacific released a statement that said rail incidents in Los Angeles County, including theft, assaults and armed robberies of Union Pacific employees, rose 160 percent last year.

In the last three months of 2021, when holiday shipping was at its peak, an average of more than 90 containers were “compromised” every day, a spokesman, Adrian Guerrero, wrote in a December letter to George Gascón, the district attorney of Los Angeles County.

Without detailing what goods were stolen, the company estimated it had incurred about $5 million in claims, losses and damages.

The company also said that customers like UPS and FedEx were considering taking their business elsewhere. UPS said it was working with the authorities to address the situation. FedEx said it was working to determine whether its shipments were affected.

Railway theft is a problem as old as the railroads themselves, though many thieves now concentrate on regional hubs like Southern California. Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, said companies nationwide were increasing steps to combat the thefts, which have been a “persistent challenge particularly in the Los Angeles area.”

In the densely populated Lincoln Heights area, a general increase in crime and police staffing levels strained by the pandemic have made matters worse, Captain Hurtado said. “We have the perfect storm of crime with Covid,” he said. “People are losing their jobs. There is a lot of homeless right now.”

The strains of the pandemic, the uncertain economy, persistent inequality and a sense of falling behind make for “ripe conditions for some of these effects to emerge,” said Eesha Sharma, an assistant professor of marketing at the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University.

“A lot of individuals are facing financial challenges,” said Professor Sharma, who co-wrote a 2013 paper on the relationship between inequity and theft. “And these effects are not relegated to people who have the least amount of resources.”

Union Pacific said that it had started using drone surveillance, “specialized fencing and trespass-detection systems” in Los Angeles County, and that its agents had made “hundreds of arrests.”

Mr. Guerrero, the company’s spokesman, has called for more aggressive prosecution of railroad thefts. He said in his December letter to Mr. Gascón, the district attorney, that people caught by agents, when turned over to the Los Angeles County authorities, often had their charges reduced to lesser offenses and were then quickly released.

Alex Bastian, a special adviser to the district attorney, said that charges had been filed for burglary and grand theft in some of the Union Pacific cases, but that others were declined because of insufficient evidence.

“Our office takes Union Pacific’s concerns seriously and hopes to discuss this issue more in the coming weeks,” he said.

Captain Hurtado said that staffing levels affecting police forces and Union Pacific’s officers were having an impact on enforcement, although the rail company’s officers were doing “everything they can.” Sometimes, he said, they are trying to stop one person and can only radio for help when they spot someone else in the distance, rifling through boxes or leaving with goods.

When people are stopped — carrying a shirt or a boogie board, for instance — they sometimes tell officers the objects were found on the street, a claim that is hard to disprove. “The people that we do arrest, we can usually only arrest them for trespassing,” he said.

Since last summer, the precinct has made more than 80 arrests at the tracks, including for trespassing and receiving stolen property “with almost no charges,” he said.

Captain Hurtado said some violent crimes were being investigated as possibly related to the theft on the tracks. But he said the department, already strained by the pandemic, did not have the manpower to send patrol officers to supplement Union Pacific personnel.

“They are really trying, but we are all understaffed,” he said.


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