Railroad theft is a problem as old as the railroads themselves, although many thieves now concentrate on regional hubs such as Southern California. Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, said companies across the country are stepping up measures to combat theft, which has been “an ongoing problem, especially in the Los Angeles area.”
In the densely populated area of Lincoln Heights, a general increase in crime and a shortage of police officers due to the pandemic have exacerbated the situation, Captain Hurtado said. “We have the perfect crime storm with Covid,” he said. “People are losing their jobs. There are a lot of homeless people now.”
Pandemic strains, economic uncertainty, persistent inequalities and a sense of being left behind are creating “ripe conditions for some of these effects to manifest,” said Isha Sharma, assistant professor of marketing at Fowler College of Business in San Diego. State University.
“Many people face financial problems,” said Professor Sharma, co-author of a 2013 paper on the relationship between injustice and theft. “And these effects don’t apply to the people with the fewest resources.”
Union Pacific said it has begun using surveillance drones, “specialized fencing and intrusion detection systems” in Los Angeles County, and that its agents have made “hundreds of arrests.”
Mr. Guerrero, a spokesman for the company, called for a more aggressive prosecution of railroad thefts. In his December letter to Mr. Gascon, the district attorney, he said that people caught by agents when they were handed over to Los Angeles County authorities often reduced their charges to smaller offenses and were then quickly released.
Alex Bastian, the district attorney’s special counsel, said some of the Union Pacific cases were charged with burglary and grand theft, but others were dropped due to insufficient evidence.