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Joint Effort Will Target Cargo Thieves

A partnership of several agencies is set up to increase security at ports and across the state.

November 14, 2002|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Federal, state and local law enforcement authorities on Wednesday announced the creation of a multi-agency partnership to be based at the Port of Los Angeles that will attack the mushrooming problem of cargo theft.

"It's going to be a very strong effort," said California Highway Patrol Chief Mike Brown, whose agency will assign a dozen people to the new service's location, a warehouse donated by the Port of Los Angeles. "This will be a great step in the right direction to stem the tide of cargo theft in the ports and across the state."

Among the agencies expected to assign security specialists to the renovated 20,000-square-foot Wilmington facility are the CHP's Cargo Theft Interdiction Program, the FBI, U.S. Customs, U.S. Coast Guard, and the state Department of Insurance.

Other agencies include Los Angeles International Airport, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Port Police Department and the Vernon Police Department.

Cargo thieves in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties steal about $2 million worth of goods each day, authorities estimate. California, the nation's capital for cargo theft, loses about $600 million in cargo a year.

Operating under the same roof will be the Los Angeles County sheriff's anti-cargo theft unit, which was eliminated by Sheriff Lee Baca in July to cut costs but is being revived with $800,000 in donations from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Los Angeles County and private industry.

The anti-theft unit, which will resume with a nine-member team, was initially invited to merge with the CHP program, but chose to operate on its own.

"It's our intent to expand [the unit] by another five investigators over the next year, if funds become available," said Sheriff's Capt. Robert Malone.

"Private industry has said [the unit] is extremely important. They fought hard to bring it back," Malone said.

The exact number of cargo thefts is unknown, however, given that there is no standard reporting system for such crimes.

Complicating matters, to avert premium increases, trucking companies often do not file cargo theft-related claims.

Authorities said the partnership will also investigate possible smuggling and terrorist activities.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a port security bulletin that said that recent security probes of Los Angeles and Long Beach ports discovered downed fences as well as open and unguarded gates. Identification checks were haphazard.

In one case, a Coast Guard special agent working undercover was allowed to walk past guards unchallenged, enter a facility, board a vessel and roam freely.

"If repeated shortfalls are noted and the level of security at a facility is deemed inappropriate," Coast Guard Capt. J.M. Holmes warned, "it may be necessary to prohibit vessels from mooring at a facility until the level of security at the facility is determined to be adequate.

"This is an action I would prefer not to take," he said. "Unfortunately, in this environment, the security of an individual facility may place the entire port complex in jeopardy."

The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex -- the nation's third-largest -- each year handles more than 5 million shipping containers, with cargo valued in excess of $170 billion.

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