Robbery is believed to be the motive for the March 21 deaths of two workers and two patrons in a Montclair, N.J., post office. Robberies are also a major concern in the Postal Service's six-county Greater Los Angeles region, where 139 robberies of carriers or facilities and 560 vehicle break-ins occurred in 1994. In some neighborhoods, the problem has become so acute that the postal service has asked residents to come outdoors when mail carriers arrive to provide a watchful presence. JAMES BLAIR and TRIN YARBOROUGH talked to Southern California postal carriers and officials about the rising incidence of violence against postal workers.
Letter carrier, Hawthorne
I was robbed at 11:40 a.m. on Feb. 1. I've been a letter carrier in Hawthorne since 1981 and this was my first robbery.
I was taking bundles out of my mail truck when a man came around the truck door real fast, with a gun in his waistband. He said: "Give me the checks, give me the checks, give me the checks!." He was in a hurry and believe me, I was in a hurry for him! But he also acted real calm, and told me to calm down, and I did. He put the mail under his shirt and walked away. I waited a few seconds then looked around the truck, trying to get my faculties back together, and saw him turning the corner. He looked back at me sort of carefree, like he was thinking "Well, see you later." I guess I had a better robber than some of the other carriers--one woman had a gun put to her temple, another woman had a machete put to her back.
The next day I was feeling real nervous, knowing I had to deliver checks again on the day after that, Feb. 3, so I went to see the staff psychologist.
I knew I had to get out on my route again or I might get too paranoid to do my work. There are two former carriers at my station alone who have never been able to go out to deliver mail again after getting robbed.
But I like my job. You get to know everyone on your route like a family. And mail is so important to everyone. I thought the people on my route would be upset at me about missing their checks, but I was surprised because they acted real concerned about me instead.
JOSEPH C. WILSON
It used to be when you joined the post office you worried about getting bit by dogs. Now you accept the fact that sometime during your career you're probably going to get held up.
About two years ago, we noticed a tremendous increase in the number of armed assaults against mail carriers on the street. I've got 91 carriers. I've had 15 robbed, usually at gunpoint, in the past two years. These robberies always occurred around the first of the month when checks were in the mail. We did a lot of things to get community involvement. We did mailings. I addressed civic groups. We had a march passing out leaflets on a Sunday through the neighborhoods where we were having the problems. We changed the pattern of delivery so someone is not looking for a carrier at a particular time and place, and we have two to four carriers delivering a single block so they can keep an eye on each other. We've been pretty successful. There was an immediate abatement of those robberies. The public's understanding this problem and their assistance in looking out for us is the real key.
LAWRENCE BROWN JR.
President, National Assn. of Letter Carriers, Angel City Branch No. 24
We've taken steps to protect our letter carriers in a combined effort of postal inspectors, postal police, management, the LAPD and the community.
Armored trucks deliver the finances to the stations instead of postal vehicles. That cuts down the opportunity of sticking up a station.
We have bullet-proof screens in more than a dozen stations. Postal inspectors and management mechanical people have come up with a different vehicle lock, much harder to get into. Nothing is foolproof but it has cut down drastically on vehicle break-ins.
On check days, we also have 30 additional LAPD patrol cars and helicopter surveillance with a postal inspector. We're trying everything we can.
Postal inspector, Los Angeles division headquarters, Pasadena
Here in Los Angeles, most of our security measures have been aimed at protecting our mail carriers. We've been conducting a test program. On government check delivery days, carriers honk their horns three times to alert people who are at home during the day to come outside and observe the letter carrier and vehicle. If would-be robbers see people looking at them they'll usually leave instead of committing the crime. We encourage postal employees to call 911 as soon as possible to get local police en route while the criminals are still in the area. On check delivery days, we also have from 50 to 100 postal inspectors out patrolling the streets so we can respond quickly to any crime. We formed an additional team of inspectors, the major crimes team, so they could focus just on robberies of postal employees. They've had tremendous success.
Letter carrier, Fullerton
During the six years I've been delivering mail from the Sunny Hills post office in Fullerton, we haven't had any robberies. The worst things that have happened are vandals knocking over mailboxes a couple of years ago, and somebody breaking into the stamp machine in our lobby two weeks ago. We do hear more talk about mail robberies, though.
We're told to watch for people who don't fit into the neighborhood--we get to know most of the people on our routes--and to beware of suspicious cars passing us more than once, maybe casing us. We're told to keep our mail locked up, and if we're robbed, we're to just give over the mail.
The worst thing that's ever happened to me at work was years ago when a dog bit me on the leg and I had to get a shot. But now all the dogs on my route know me and are friendly. Under postal rules, dog owners get a warning and if problems continue they have to get a post office box to receive their mail.
I like my job a lot. I like being out in the fresh air and it's the only job I know where you get paid to exercise!