One day in November, a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier was walking his route in Brooklyn, New York, when he suddenly found himself in a harrowing situation.
While he was opening a mail storage box, a man rushed up and attempted to steal his arrow key, according to the New York City Police Department and an internal Postal Service alert. The keys, which are used to unlock mail collection boxes, are highly coveted by criminals seeking to steal mail.
The two men tussled with each other, but the assailant managed to run off with the key, police said.
The mail carrier took off after him, but the pursuit didn’t last long. The suspect pulled out a gun and opened fire — the bullet whizzing past the mailman, police said.
“It’s crazy that things like this are happening,” said John Cruz, president of the local letter carriers union. “We need more protection out there.”
The Brooklyn incident was extreme, but it wasn’t an aberration. Criminals across the country are increasingly targeting mail carriers.
Between 2018 and 2021, robberies of mail carriers more than tripled, and robberies involving a gun more than quadrupled, according to U.S. Postal Inspection Service data obtained through a public records request.
The number of letter carrier robberies across the country rose from 80 in 2018 to 261 in 2021. The number of armed robberies jumped from 36 in 2018 to 154 in 2021, according to the data.
The crime wave is showing no sign of abating. Both categories of crimes are on pace in 2022 to exceed last year’s figures.
The Postal Service referred questions to the Postal Inspection Service, which investigates letter carrier robberies along with local police departments.
In a statement to NBC News, the inspection service said the surge in letter carrier robberies is likely fueled by several factors including the economic impact of the Covid crisis, the growth in USPS parcel volume amid the rise of e-commerce and the mailing of government checks related to pandemic aid programs.
“The Postal Inspection Service is engaged on multiple fronts with various partners to combat robberies and prosecute these criminals,” the statement said.
In early March, the Postal Inspection Service released an advisory on the “significant increase of armed robberies committed against U.S. Postal Service letter carriers.”
“The primary motive behind these robberies is illegal financial gains,” the advisory said. “In the present day, with the dark web and organized crime promoting these unlawful activities, robberies and mail theft are becoming increasingly more attractive to criminals.”
The increase in carrier robberies has come at a time when many parts of the country have seen a sharp rise in murders and other violent crimes. Robberies, however, decreased in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report.
Reports of mail theft have risen sharply in recent years. According to the USPS Office of Inspector General, the Postal Inspection Service received more than 299,000 mail theft complaints from March 2020 through February 2021 — an increase of 184,500 complaints (161 percent) compared to the same period the previous year.
Frank Albergo, president of the Postal Police Officers Association, said he believes a move to sideline postal police officers is contributing to the surge in mail carrier robberies.
Postal police officers were ordered to stop patrolling city streets in August 2020. A Postal Inspection Service memo released at the time said the officers would be restricted to working on post office property.
“We were doing the job. We were protecting letter carriers,” Albergo said. “And then all of a sudden, they decided it wasn’t a good use for postal police officers. It made no sense. And this is the consequence: They have a mail theft epidemic on their hands.”
The Postal Inspection Service did not provide a specific response to Albergo’s claim but said the jurisdiction of postal police officers “is limited to Postal Service real property.”
“As such, the primary role of [postal police officers] is to provide physical security for Postal Service property at their assigned work locations,” the statement added.
Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said any trends that pose risks or threats to their well-being are “disturbing.”
“We will continue to work with Postal Service representatives and the Postal Inspection Service to take any steps necessary to prevent crimes from being committed against letter carriers and to improve their safety on the job,” Rolando said.