Their cars look like police cars, because officers with the Union Pacific Police Department are certified state law enforcement officers.
UPPD’s main jurisdiction involves railroad property, but UP police also have authority off the premises, according to Kristen South, UPRR’s spokeswoman in Nebraska.
UP police cars have been seen recently in North Platte, adding to the unsettling feelings of workers who also see drones flying over the yard.
But primarily, UP police look for trespassers – people who still engage in the age-old practice of hopping a ride on a freight train — which is still a dangerous and illegal thing to do.
For example, on Sunday night, March 11 in North Platte, Union Pacific Police Officer Kenneth Persinger arrested transient Brandon J. Kirby, 25, on railroad property near Front and Pacific streets.
Kirby was taken to jail, and 18 hours later, he pled guilty to second-degree trespassing in court and was fined $150. Since he couldn’t pay, he went back to jail for another two days, sitting behind bars in lieu of paying the fine, according to court and sheriff’s records.
Second-degree trespassing is committed when someone enters or remains in a place where they know they are not privileged to be, according to state law.
After Kirby was released, he seemed to be at a loss as to how to get out of town. On March 17, he was charged with stealing a car at the homeless shelter.
In addition to apprehending transients, the UP police also enforce interstate and federal laws. They watch for contraband and keep an eye out for potential terrorists.
And when necessary, they work with other law enforcement agencies.
“Our special agents are in constant communication with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, helping us better understand security intelligence across our system,” South said.
In Nebraska, UP’s enforcement authority is restricted to crimes committed against the railroad, or those committed on UP property, South said.
But every state differs in authority, she said.
And even in Nebraska, in a critical situation, UP agents can take other enforcement action if the agent believes the safety of others is at risk if they do not act.
That said, UP agents seldom pursue minor crimes and violations.
For instance, they do not act on traffic infractions that they see, unless it is at an at-grade rail crossing, South said.
In the case of a DUI (driving under the influence), which does place the public’s safety at risk, UP agents would perform a traffic stop and then turn the situation over to local law enforcement, holding the driver until city or county officers arrive on the scene, South said.
South would not say how many arrests special agents have made in Lincoln County. Neither would the North Platte Police Department.
The North Platte police do not patrol Union Pacific property – only helping there when they are asked, North Platte police spokesman J. Johnson said.
“UP is private property and have their own police department that responds to, and investigates, crimes that occur on their property,” Johnson stressed. “(However,) if our office receives a request for assistance from UPPD, we will assist.”
South said railroad security also relies on 42,000 Union Pacific employees, “who are our best security prevention tool,” South said.
“They are the eyes and ears of the railroad, and we encourage employees to report any suspicious activity to the Response Management Communication Center,” she said.
The agents are dispatched by the response management center.
The public is also encouraged to report suspicious behavior, blocked crossings, or other issues to the RMCC at 1-888-UPRR-COP.
South said that the program had been “very effective” when she was asked what the overall effectiveness has been.
The agents on 24/7 patrol investigate crimes committed against the railroad such as theft, trespassing, derailments, and threats. They also deliver safety messages to schools.
The department is staffed by more than 220 special agents who use K-9 units (drug detection dogs), night vision, thermal imaging, and firearms.
These 220 agents are responsible for more than 32,000 miles of railway in 23 states, the company says.
When an opening arises, applicants must have three years’ experience as military police or public law enforcement and have graduated from an accredited police academy. A criminal justice or police science degree is also a standard requirement. Candidates can also be required to meet other unspecified qualifications, depending on locations, South said.
The department has earned endorsement from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA) – a feat only 17% of the police agencies in the U.S are credited with, Union Pacific said.
Although it may seem that there has been an increase of UPPD vehicles in North Platte, the special agents are far from strangers to west central Nebraska.
The force can be dated back to the mid 1800s and is even credited with the creation of the U.S Federal Bureau of Investigation’s creation in 1907.
The shortage of U.S railway marshals lead to ‘Pinkertons,’ a coined term for agents, after Alan Pinkerton, the first Union Pacific special agent.
Inside Track, a UP company magazine, profiled Union Pacific Special Agents in an article in April 2016 entitled, The Badges Behind the Shield. The article relays stories of Texas special agents and what they have endured — from gun shots to bizarre encounters.
“Once I ran into a group that was traveling with a dog, a rat and a duck on a leash,” said Texan agent Kevin Wells.
Although that may seem humorous, Wells said he could be confronted with a life-threatening situation at any time.
The Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs houses a plaque that commemorates the fallen UP officers who died in the line of duty. Thankfully, the list is a short one, with only eight names, and all of the deaths occurred in 1920 or before.
One officer – Ray Daugherty – died in the line of service on Nov. 19, 1917.
During World War I, after numerous threats and some bombings, a large number of special agents were assigned to bridge guard duty. They were to run across bridges behind passenger trains to make sure no one threw a bomb off while crossing the bridge.
Special Agent Daugherty was working the Loup River Bridge at Columbus, Neb. He was following a train across the bridge when he was hit by a switch engine and knocked from the bridge.
The size and intractable power of the switch engine that ended Daugherty’s life illustrates the danger that all Union Pacific employees work with daily, including the special agents.
Bulletin Editor George Lauby contributed to this report. First published in the Bulletin’s March 14 print edition and reprinted by popular request.