By Kristy Hutchings for dailybreeze.com
Officials from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office on Tuesday, Feb. 8, reiterated the agency’s focus on prosecuting those charged with rail theft while once again pushing back on criticism from Union Pacific.
They did so during a hearing, organized by LA City Councilman Joe Buscaino, on the stark increase in thefts that have hit Union Pacific amid the coronavirus pandemic, causing another blow to an already stressed supply chain.
The hearing also featured Adrian Guerrero, Union Pacific’s general director for public affairs for California and the Pacific Northwest, who made headlines last month after the railroad publicly posted a letter he wrote to District Attorney George Gascon in December blaming the latter’s diversion policies for letting suspected thieves go after being arrested.
Guerrero on Tuesday said Union Pacific continues bolstering its security. But he declined to provide data on the number of special agents the railroad has patrolling yards and tracks — citing concerns that organized thieves may be surveilling their operations.
“We’re not going to go into the numbers on UP’s police force,” Guerrero said. “we’re not looking to advertise what exactly our presence is to the folks that are monitoring this from the organized criminal side.”
Buscaino convened the hearing, which also included law enforcement agencies, to get “to the bottom of the finger-pointing surrounding the alarming rail thefts on Union Pacific’s tracks in Los Angeles,” a press release said.
The hearing came weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom visited UP’s railroad, helping pick up trash and stressing multi-agency collaboration to successfully combat the rising thefts.
The thefts grabbed headlines in early January after a train derailed in Los Angeles. The tracks there were strewn with discarded boxes and other detritus, which Union Pacific said was left over from thieves.
Guerrero echoed the governor’s collaborative spirit during the visit.
But that public gathering came between dueling letters from Guerrero and Gascon about who shoulders the blame for the rise in thefts, which the former said increased 160% last year.
Guerrero’s mid-December letter singled out the DA’s office and other law enforcement agencies for not doing enough to properly prevent theft or prosecute suspects.
“Criminals boast to our officers that charges will be pled down to simple trespassing – which bears no serious consequence,” Guerrero wrote to Gascon. “Without any judicial deterrence or consequence, it is no surprise that over the past year UP has witnessed the significant increase in criminal rail theft.”
Gascon responded to Union Pacific’s concerns in his own letter — questioning the validity of the railroad’s data on theft rates and the efforts of its police force.
“UP has its own law enforcement officers who are responsible for patrolling and keeping areas safe,” Gascon wrote. “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.”
Three officials from the DA’s office provided updates during Tuesday’s hearing on their bureau’s efforts to assist local law enforcement with cases related to UP thefts, and continued pushing back on Guerrero’s criticism.
“Right now, our local partners are really being driven by the court’s emergency bail schedule,” said Joseph Iniguez, the DA’s chief of staff. “The DA’s position on no-cash bail differs from what is being implemented in the field.”
The pandemic-era policy requires bail for most crimes to be set at $0.
Laura Jane Kessner, who oversees the Charge Evaluation Division of the DA’s office, also explained that not all thefts at UP’s railroads fall within the DA’s jurisdiction.
She didn’t explain why that’s the case, but some cities in Los Angeles County prosecute their own misdemeanors. The county DA, though, prosecutes all felonies.
“We can really provide assistance and guidance and walk those officers through how to file a case with the DA’s office,” she said, noting that the CED will also help officers determine whether or not their specific case falls within the DA’s jurisdiction.
Kessner also said CED managers are paying special attention to all cargo theft cases to determine whether they show complexity or contain elements of organized crime.
Railroads are among the latter players in the supply chain — and one of its most important.
At the Port of Los Angeles, for example, about 35% of containers travel via rail.
The ports of LA and Long Beach are the two busiest in the nation, and Union Pacific is one of the two biggest railroads serving the twin ports; BNSF is the other.
If any cases do contain organizational complexity, they will be passed on to the state’s newly created Rail Cargo Theft Task Force, which works closely with the DA’s office.
“The state creation and funding over a rail cargo theft task force changes everything,” Mark Beaart, director of the DA’s Fraud and Corruption Division, noting that the task force provides several layers of accountability for law enforcement.
“The vertical prosecution will mitigate this crime,” Beaart added. “Task forces have worked in mitigating identity theft, drug smuggling, weapon smuggling, human trafficking, and also auto smuggling — and it will work in this particular case.”