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A jump in robberies of USPS carriers is prompting agency to expand safety measures

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story bothers me. I have a postal carrier. I see them. They come and go, all kinds of weather, delivering stuff. And now we find there's been a big jump in robberies of postal service mail carriers. More than 400 were accosted last year and just over 300 so far this year, which is only around half over. The agency has expanded a crime prevention initiative known as Project Safe Delivery in an effort to protect postal workers and their packages. WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach reports from Milwaukee.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Milwaukee is one of the cities that's been a trouble spot. Just weeks ago, the Justice Department announced indictments against five Milwaukee men accused of the armed robbery of postal carriers. And there was more tragic news last December, when Milwaukee letter carrier Aundre Cross was shot to death while delivering mail. During a vigil, Cross' former supervisor, Tracey Merrill, remembered the man she called Dre, saying she appreciated his supportive spirit.

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TRACEY MERRILL: We all got a job to do, but we still have to have an open heart. And Dre was that open spirit. He encouraged me. And when I was down, he encouraged me - always encouraging words.

QUIRMBACH: Federal prosecutors eventually charged two men with murder and two alleged accomplices with lying to investigators. The criminal complaint suggests some of the defendants may have been receiving illegal drugs in the mail. The matter has not yet gone to trial.

The president of the letter carriers' local union, Dave Skowronek, says many of his 1,900 members walk a route and interact with the public. And he says those troubling incidents do have an impact.

DAVE SKOWRONEK: I know people are reluctant, especially if there's something major, like the murder of Brother Cross, where people are reluctant to go into the area, but it is our job. It is our duty to serve the American public, and we'll continue to do it.

QUIRMBACH: The Postal Inspection Service investigates crimes against letter carriers. In an effort to track down people who are targeting them, it runs appeals, seeking the public's help online.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's Wanted Wednesday. This week's suspects are wanted for the robbery of a letter carrier in Millburn, N.J., on May 13.

QUIRMBACH: The Inspection Service offers rewards of up to $50,000 for information leading to arrests and convictions. Project Safe Delivery includes more extensive steps. They're installing thousands of high-security collection boxes to make it harder for thieves to steal mail. They'll also replace about 49,000 so-called arrow keys - that are used to open blue mailboxes - with electronic locks. It's those keys criminals want to steal checks and other items. The Postal Service hopes the measures will spur more people to apply to become mail carriers. There are more than 630,000 postal workers in the United States. About one-third of those deliver the mail. At a recent job fair at the Milwaukee Hampton branch post office, manager Lydia Caldwell says any new hires will find she's dedicated to employees' safety.

LYDIA CALDWELL: We give safety talks every day. We're consistently making our carriers aware - always be aware of your surroundings. We go out on the street, and we spot check to make sure that our carriers are safe.

QUIRMBACH: The Postal Inspection Service urges customers to get involved in neighborhood watch groups to spread awareness about threats to people delivering the mail - also to keep an eye out for their carrier. And if they see something suspicious, call 911.

For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Chuck Quirmbach is a Milwaukee-based reporter who covers developments and issues in Southeastern Wisconsin that are of statewide interest. He has numerous years of experience covering state government, elections, the environment, energy, racial diversity issues, clergy abuse claims and major baseball stadium doings. He enjoys covering all topics.