Postal carriers ‘traumatized’ after recent armed robberies and other crimes, says head of union

Mail carriers in the Chicago area are traumatized, fearing for their lives, following a string of armed robberies and thefts targeting postal workers in recent months, the head of the Chicago branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers told the Tribune on Wednesday.

“It’s a traumatizing experience to have a gun pulled at you in the performance of your duties while servicing the public,” said Elise M. Foster, the president of the union’s Branch 11, who says she represents the local carriers who recently have been victims of assaults. “They’re scared and some don’t even want to return back to work.”

Stretching back to at least August, mail carriers have seemingly faced a heightened risk while delivering mail, with armed robbers stealing packages, letters and master keys that open clusters of mailboxes. On Tuesday alone, police departments in Chicago and Mount Prospect issued statements about mail-related crimes.

In the most recent case, Chicago police Tuesday morning discovered a cache of stolen U.S. Postal Service property and “various electronic items” in a vacant Loop hotel room. TV camera crews captured officers taking cases of equipment out of the Virgin Hotels Chicago on Wabash Avenue that police dispatchers described as containing mailbox key-cutting materials, piles of mail, identification cards and computer equipment.

Later that day, police issued a community alert warning of a man with thick, bifocal glasses wearing fuzzy slippers who robbed two postal carriers on the Northwest Side in January. And that was on top of at least two other postal workers robbed in different parts of the city last month, police records show.

In the suburbs, Mount Prospect police on Tuesday announced charges against a Park City duo after finding stolen packages, credit cards and mail during a traffic stop. This comes after two separate mail carriers were robbed of their “arrow” master keys in September in Evanston. In Naperville, burglaries from nine mail collection boxes resulted in 25 cases of identity theft, police said in December.

And that same month, just across the Wisconsin border, a Milwaukee mail carrier was shot and killed.

But the threats to mail carriers and mail security stretch farther back. From mid-August to early October, at least four mail carriers were robbed on Chicago’s West Side, according to police.

And on Oct. 22, a man attempted to sexually assault and kidnap a postal worker and subsequently stole her postal vehicle in Little Village, police said.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, USPS’s law enforcement arm, has offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to arrest in many of the robberies. An inspection service spokesperson would not say whether crimes against mail carriers have increased, but said robbery investigations “receive the highest level of response and attention.”

“Protecting the Postal Service and its employees is the core mission of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service,” the spokesperson, Spencer Block, said in an emailed statement. “Postal Inspectors remind Postal employees to maintain vigilance while serving their communities and to report suspicious activity to law enforcement, should the need arise. Postal Inspectors advise Postal employees to immediately relocate to an area of safety if employees determine their safety is at risk while conducting their official duties, followed by informing their local management and Postal Inspectors after doing so.”

The union’s Foster and other community leaders are calling on the public for help to protect letter carriers in the city through an initiative to get residents involved in the safety of their local workers.

“If you see something, say something,” Foster said. “Let them know that some place down their route is a safe haven and that you can get to that house and that customer is going to help you.”

In many of the recent mail carrier robberies, armed thieves target mail carrier’s master keys. The keys provide access to blue drop-off boxes and to cluster mailboxes. The recent Loop hotel room discovery raises concerns not only for the safety of the mail carriers but also for the security of the public, whose personal information could be compromised in the hands of the criminals, Foster said.

Last month, Chicago’s City Council introduced an ordinance that would require changing the location of outdoor mail collection boxes to inside the buildings. If the ordinance passes, existing cluster mailboxes with eight or more addresses would have to be moved inside buildings by Oct. 15., and buildings with 50 or more addresses would also need to move mailboxes to a secure room inside.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, a Chicago Democrat, has asked homeowners and neighbors to support Operation Letter Carrier Safe Passage, a public awareness to campaign to highlight the dangers letter carriers face while on the job, and how to protect them.

“We’re asking the community itself, not just the police but the community can be seriously engaged by just being good citizens and watching out for delivery people: befriending the mail carrier, establishing a relationship with them,” said Davis, who said he has begun the efforts in the 29th Ward, where he lives.

Davis said he’s been urging managers at local postal offices to change up the routes of the carriers and their delivery times or to assign two carriers on a single route to help avoid potential assaults.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin also said that more needs to be done within the postal agency, adding that the Postal Service is “not only failing customers on delivery standards, but its own employees on their safety and security.”

“I have repeatedly pressed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the postal board of governors, and other postal leaders on mail related crime. I have been reassured time and time again that the Postal Service leadership takes these cases seriously and is devoting great effort to addressing these crimes, but it is obvious that their efforts are not successful,” Durbin told the Tribune.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and police are investigating how the property recovered at the hotel was stolen and what criminal activity it may have been used for, but it is too early to share many details, Block said.

Chicago police said that area three detectives along with USPS are investigating and the property will be taken into inventory.

Many of the recent robberies remain unsolved, including the robbery of two postal workers who were robbed in West Pullman within a few minutes of one another on Jan. 5.

In both attacks, a man got out of a dark sport utility vehicle, displayed a handgun and demanded the postal workers’ master keys, according to police. The mail carriers — a 68-year-old man and a 49-year-old woman — were outside when they were attacked. Both complied with the armed man, and neither was injured, police said.

Six days later, a 35-year-old mail carrier was robbed at gunpoint in Lincoln Park by a pair of armed thieves, police said. The man, wearing black fuzzy slippers and bifocal glasses, robbed postal workers at gunpoint in Galewood on Jan. 17 and again on Jan. 31, police said.

A postal worker was reportedly robbed in West Lawn by an armed man on a bike on Oct. 19. Days later, another was robbed at the Austin intersection of West Huron Street and North Lavergne Avenue.

Foster worries that the assaults can escalate, costing the lives of postal workers, most of whom are women in Chicago, she said. The well-being of the carriers and the customers falls not only in the hands of law enforcement, but also the postal manager and the inspection service, she said.

“The mail carriers are very important to the city, to our customers,” Foster said, “and at the very least, they should be protected while they’re out there making their rounds.”