Letter carrier robberies continue as USPS, union, lawmakers seek solutions

When the U.S. Postal Service launched Project Safe Delivery last year, officials pledged they would be “doubling down" on their efforts to combat growing rates of letter carrier robberies.

The crackdown has led to hundreds of arrests, and robberies slowed toward the end of the year. But, overall, the number of postal carriers who were robbed in 2023 rose again and the number who were injured nearly doubled as criminals continue to target carriers for their antiquated “arrow keys” that allow access to mailboxes.

This week, legislation is being introduced in Congress to accelerate the replacement of tens of thousands of mailbox keys, boost prosecutions and review sentencing guidelines.

All of it can’t come soon enough for letter carriers.

“We’re like sitting ducks out there,” said Houston mail carrier Tijuana Abbott, who accused postal leadership of failing to do enough to address the problem. “Enough is enough."

Postal carrier robberies climbed to 643 last year, an increase of nearly 30%, and the number of robberies resulting in injuries doubled to 61 last year, according to figures provided by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Associated Press.

All told, robberies grew sixfold over the past decade and the number of postal carriers held at gunpoint increased even more, according to an analysis of the postal statistics.

Under Project Safe Delivery, which was launched last May, there have been more than 1,200 arrests for mail thefts and letter carrier robberies. The Postal Inspection Service also conducted targeted law enforcement surges in trouble spots including Chicago, San Francisco and cities across Ohio.

The effort also included the deployment of more than 10,000 high−security blue boxes in high−risk locations, and the installation of nearly 30,000 electronic locks on mail receptacles.

There is a glimmer of hope. Postal robberies dipped 19% over the past five months, while arrests for letter carrier robberies grew 73% so far in the 2024 fiscal year, said Jeff Adams, postal service spokesperson.

“We have been unrelenting in our pursuit of criminals who target postal employees and the U.S. mail. The efforts of our postal inspectors and law enforcement partners have yielded positive results," Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said. “We are not done.”

Postal leaders and the letter carrier union were incensed when a federal judge in San Francisco last month sentenced a man who held a gun to a postal carrier’s head to just 30 days behind bars.

DeJoy called it “unacceptable.” The leader of the letter carriers union called it “absolutely ludicrous.”

“Postal carriers should be able to do their job without any concern of someone putting a gun in their face or in any way assaulting them while they’re just trying to do their job and deliver to the American people their mail,” said U.S. Attorney Kenneth Parker, whose district in southern Ohio dealt with growing postal carrier robberies.

In addition to being traumatizing for letter carriers, Parker said the robberies represent a “threat to democracy” because in addition to envelopes containing personal checks, prescriptions and other important items, many now use the mail to send in ballots.

This week, a bill is expected to be introduced in Congress to appropriate federal dollars to help replace the antiquated keys with electronic versions that have no value to criminals, require all 93 U.S. attorneys to designate a prosecutor for postal crime, and to review sentencing guidelines for postal crimes, said Brian Renfroe, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

The bipartisan legislation “provides resources to protect our dedicated postal service workers while making sure we are punishing criminals to the fullest extent of the law,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R−Pennsylvania, the lead sponsor in the House.

Jeremiah Grant, a postal carrier in Oklahoma City, was held up in April 2022 by a man wearing a mask. He clambered to take off his thick leather belt to which his key was attached while a gun was being pointed at him. The gunman also snatched his cellphone and smashed it.

Unnerved by the experience, Grant had difficulty sleeping and decided not to go back to his route.

"I’m no longer a letter carrier. I’m a clerk, because I don’t feel safe going out there," Grant said. “It’s not a feeling that I can shake, and it’s been almost two years now.”

Abbott, the Houston mail carrier, was victim of an attempted rape in which she fought off the knife−wielding attacker on her postal route 20 years ago. Ten years later, she was robbed of her arrow key.

Abbott worked through the trauma and still delivers mail. But she questions the sincerity of postal officials’ efforts to stop crime.

“I believe they abandoned us. We are getting robbed of the keys and they’re not doing anything about it,” she said. “I feel like they don’t care.”

Though unique circumstances led to the 30−day sentence in the San Francisco case, federal law allows for a sentence of up to 10 years for an assault on a postal worker, and up to 25 years for a subsequent offense, officials said. Mail theft carries a penalty of up to five years in prison, and possession, concealment or disposal of property carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

“There used to be mindset among the public that those are federal employees,” Renfroe said. “If you mess with them you’re going to be in big trouble. That’s what we have to make a reality again.”

David Sharp, The Associated Press

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