Heard of railroad police? Don't worry, neither had we. But they exist, they operate with little government oversight, and they've been accused of various offences ranging from harassment to racial profiling to physical assault, the New York Times reports. "There needs to be better oversight of these corporate police forces, because right now it is sorely lacking," says Lloyd Larsen, a GOP state rep in Wyoming, one of two states where railroad cops don't have law-enforcement powers. "No one knows what they do or how they operate outside of people at the company." Railroad police date back to the days of Jesse James train robberies, and usually carry out their work—of guarding train goods that come to $515 billion annually—without any complaints. But complaints, there have been:
- An Oklahoma woman sued Union Pacific Railroad in 2010, saying a railroad officer accused her of trespassing and choked her when she was walking to a store. Charges against her were dropped, and she settled for $25,000.
- Railroad police in a black Miami neighborhood have made hundreds of trespassing arrests in recent years, the Miami New Times reports. Yet residents say they have long crossed the tracks for daily purposes. Some say it's racial profiling, while the railroad cops cite safety concerns.
- Railroad workers have made abuse complaints, which only become public when lawsuits are filed.
"Communities grant law enforcement powers to these officers," says a retired cop, "and should be assured that they are operating with the same level of scrutiny that officers from a local city or town receive."