A mailbag full of crime problems
With a growing incidence of mail carriers in major urban centers being maced, pistol-whipped, stabbed, beaten and knocked unconscious on the first and third day of every month, when welfare and Social Security checks flood the mail, the U.S. Postal Service is fighting back with generous rewards for information, cell phones for carriers, the suspension of mail delivery on those days in dangerous neighborhoods, among other strategies.
The days when a neighborhood dog was a mail carrier’s worst fear are over. In fact, Regina Dread, a Los Angeles mail carrier who has been robbed twice in less than a year, said she feels safer when stray dogs on one block of her route escort her down the street.
“All you think is who’s going to get you,” she told USA Today. “You can’t assume that the old lady walking up to you is not going to bother you. Everybody’s the enemy. We’ve been robbed by little kids, old people, young guys…. You hear leaves, you jump.”
Robberies of mail carriers have occurred in 21 of the nation’s 29 postal inspection divisions this year, including San Francisco, New York, Memphis, Tenn., Fort Worth, Texas, Buffalo, N.Y., and Atlanta.
In Los Angeles alone, 287 mail carriers have been robbed and 1,479 postal vehicles have been broken into since 1993. Those figures account for nearly half of all such robberies and break-ins across the country.
A mail carrier in Washington, D.C., was shot to death in June as he ate lunch in his truck. As of mid-September, there had been 18 reported assaults of mail carriers this year, the same figure as for all of 1995.
The Postal Service’s law enforcement arm, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, has invested millions of dollars on countermeasures in the past two years, said Paul Griffo, an agency spokesman.
In Richmond, Va., and Los Angeles, mail may be suspended in dangerous neighborhoods on check days. Residents are required to go to a central location to collect their mail.
Postal inspectors armed with 9mm. Berettas and sawed-off shotguns sweep the streets ahead of mail carriers in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Buffalo. For Los Angeles mail carriers, however, that mode of protection is not entirely comforting. Inspectors can patrol only a quarter of the postal delivery area, said Edison Tillett, 32, a mail carrier who has been robbed at gunpoint.
In the case of the Los Angeles division, postal inspectors have to cover an area that stretches from the Mexican border to San Luis Obispo, more than 200 miles north of Los Angeles.
Tillet joined the Postal Service after being robbed at gunpoint while working as a guard for an armored-car company, thinking life as a mailman would be safer. “It’s too dangerous,” he said. “They need to come up with some kind of solution.”
In many communities, fliers are being sent out to postal customers, asking them to keep an eye on their carriers and call 911 if they see trouble. Los Angeles carriers have what they call a “Honk and Loop” system. Before they get out of their vehicles, they honk three times so that neighbors are alerted to their approach.
Rewards of up to $50,000 for the murder of a letter carrier are being offered by the Postal Service for information leading to the arrests of criminals. Lesser sums are offered for mail theft or the robbery of a postal employee.
And, after two carriers were robbed at gunpoint near a Richmond housing project, the Postal Service purchased cellular phones for some of its carriers.
The Postal Inspection Service says its anti-crime measures are having an effect, pointing to sharp decreases in the Los Angeles division, typically the region hardest hit by crimes against mail carriers. There were 35 robberies of carriers through mid-September, compared to 107 last year, and 140 vehicle break-ins, as opposed to 296 in 1995.