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LA councilman blasts train theft 'chaos,' calls them 'a threat to our economy'

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Brazen freight train thefts have spiked in Los Angeles, with images of looted packages and abandoned containers capturing headlines and captivating social media — and putting pressure on California Governor Gavin Newsom to address conditions even he likened to "a third world country."

The thefts have sparked a war of words between law enforcement and Union Pacific (UNP), which owns the railroad and has called for stronger deterrence. But the growing problem has become a rallying cry for at least one local official, who is calling for stiffer penalties against criminals exploiting a weak link in the nation's supply chain crisis.

Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview that he's "never seen anything like this. We're seeing more chaos with fewer consequences for those who are committing these acts."

The issue has become more of a problem during the past three months – raising new criticism around L.A. County's no cash bail policy, which has worsened the problem by making it easier for thieves to get released — if they get charged at all.

In a letter to the LA County District Attorney last month, Adrian Guerrero, UP's director of public affairs, noted that rail thefts have skyrocketed by 160% in the county over the past year. On average, 90 containers were compromised every day, the company said.

“As a local elected official representing the port of Los Angeles, whenever there's a threat to divert cargo away from this region, it's a threat to our local economy,” Buscaino said.

'What the hell is going on?'

California Governor Gavin Newsom visits the site where multiple train looting has occurred along the freight train tracks in Los Angeles, California U.S., January 20, 2022 . REUTERS/David Swanson
California Governor Gavin Newsom visits the site where multiple train looting has occurred along the freight train tracks in Los Angeles, California U.S., January 20, 2022 . REUTERS/David Swanson

Amid a surge in smash and grab retail thefts plaguing California, the train crisis caught Newsom's attention, who in late January visited tracks strewn with garbage. The governor promised statewide coordination as law enforcement and prosecutors pursue petty thieves and organized criminals who have been raiding cargo containers.

"The images looked like a Third World country," Newsom told reporters. "What you saw here in the last week is just not acceptable. So, I took off the suit and tie and said I'm coming because I couldn't take it. I can't turn on the news anymore. What the hell is going on?"

The thefts have exposed a rift between UP and local law enforcement. In a letter released last month, L.A. County DA George Gascon shifted blame on the company for doing "little to secure or lock trains," while insisting the number of cases involving the rail company fell last year. Meanwhile, according to LAPD Deputy Chief Al Labrada, “UP has significantly decreased law enforcement staffing.”

Gascon, a progressive former San Francisco top prosecutor who was came into office in 2020, insisted that it was “very telling that other major railroad operations in the area are not facing the same level of theft at their facilities as UP."

Yet the company defended itself, saying it has "brought in dozens of special agents from across our 23-state network into the Los Angeles area, starting last year. But these agents cannot totally supplant the expertise and investigative skills of the LAPD, especially when it comes to organized theft of cargo," a spokesperson from UP told Yahoo Finance in an email.

Gascon's progressive policies, however, have him facing a recall effort that was officially approved by the Los Angeles County Registrar on Thursday. The effort was spurred by some of his orders that included the elimination of sentence enhancement charges, zero-bail policies and not prosecuting juveniles as adults for many crimes.

'This needs to stop'

Meanwhile, the cargo looting has taken on an added dimension of risk. While most of the stolen property are consumer goods, more than 80 newly manufactured guns were among the items stolen recently, local police officials said last week.

The pilfered firearms included at least 36 pistols and 46 semi-automatic shotguns that were taken from a burglarized container car in August and bound for Tennessee, LAPD said. Only two of those weapons have been recovered thus far, they said.

And last month, Yahoo Finance discovered that one stolen package was addressed to Oregon State Police from BPS Tactical Inc., a custom Law Enforcement gear company.

Buscaino told Yahoo Finance that the prosecutorial response needed to be more stringent. “It's about holding people accountable and whether it's installing heavy duty locks or when someone is caught by committing the theft, they need to be prosecuted."

Buscaino is seeking more transparency on package thefts from UP, while directing the Chief Legislative Analyst to report on thefts that include arrests made, whether the cases were referred for prosecution by the City Attorney’s Office, District Attorney’s Office or U.S. Attorney’s office.

Measures would also include bolstering police presence in the area, and preventative measures to deter thefts and trespassing.

Buscaino blasted "finger pointing" between the company and law enforcement officials, adding "I'm tired of it. I'm tired of the letters being sent to various departments and entities, let's get everyone at the table."

While Union Pacific agents have made hundreds of arrests, the company said the partnership with local and state law enforcement, and elected pubic officials is necessary.

The railroad company has been working with its clients to enhance security, testing drones and other high-tech tools. But "criminals [are] out there who are countering the drone deployment by knocking 'em down or shooting 'em down," Buscaino told Yahoo Finance.

"This needs to stop. This is an embarrassment to our city [and] our county," he added.

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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