CHICAGO (WLS) -- The union for postal police said they were once 2,700 members strong. Now, there are about 400 officers who say they are banned from patrolling streets, and relegated to protecting only postal facilities.
Chicago's Postal Inspector in Charge said the mission of the postal police remains the same: protect employees, customers and property.
"In any situation where someone takes something from you, you feel violated," retired mail carrier Alvin Charleston said.
He recalled being robbed of his mail keys on his Chicago route.
"As he approached me he said give me your keys, and that's when he showed me the weapon he had," he said.
"So those keys. They're called arrow keys, and they open up all blue collection boxes, all apartment panels, cluster boxes in a given zip code," said Frank Albergo, president of the Postal Police Officers Association.
"They're easy targets. Carriers aren't carrying weapons," said retired Postal Police Officer James Bjork.
He said protecting carriers on their routes used to be part of his job as a postal police officer.
"The officers on the day shift and afternoon shift would do letter carrier protection patrols," he said.
That changed in 2020 when the U.S. Postal Inspection Service clarified the law determining jurisdiction for postal police officers, limiting them to its service facilities, even though they are sworn federal law enforcement officers.
"The jurisdiction remains the same. The need to have them at our facilities, providing that security aspect is paramount to our overall mission. So you know, I don't think the jurisdiction has changed. We, we, you know, we re-examined it, got clarification. And now we're focused on that," said Bill Hedrick, Inspector in Charge, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Chicago.
"It'd be like telling Chicago police, stay in the police station," said Bjork.
"What they've done is shift the burden to local police departments," said Albergo. "Local police departments obviously have other things to worry about."
The postal service has not escaped the current crime trend. The president of Chicago's letter carriers union said a postal worker was robbed of their keys at gunpoint on Monday in the Roseland neighborhood.
An I-Team data analysis shows in 2020, the Postal Inspection Service responded to more than 7,000 reports nationwide of violent crimes against postal employees. Since October, more than 165 letter carriers, including many in the Chicago area, have been victims of armed robberies, a significant increase since 2019.
From March 2020 to February 2021, there were 753 postal inspection service mail fraud cases and 1,090 postal inspection service mail theft cases. The Chicago division handled 39 mail fraud cases during that same time period, up from 29 from the year before. As for theft cases, they handled 44, down from 54.
According to Hinsdale Police, a man with a gun took a carrier's keys last Monday near Stough and Hinsdale Avenue. No arrests have been made. The police report says the stolen key is a "series 76 key and could open all the mailboxes" in Oak Brook, Hinsdale, Burr Ridge and part of Willowbrook.
Investigators say those keys sell for as much as $7,000.
"Any crime associated with the Postal Service, our employees, or our customers that involves the mail is a priority for us," said Hedrick.
"They have decimated our ranks by 20% since 2019," said Albergo.
Chicago's Inspector in Charge saidthat's not the case.
"The complement for Chicago has remained the same over the last 10 years for postal police officers," Hedrick said.
A new training class of postal police officers is supposed to begin in August. The first since the beginning of the pandemic.
"We exist to protect postal employees and the mail," said Albergo. "But now we're being handcuffed to postal facilities."
"The management's responsibility is to ensure the safety of his employees," said retired mail carrier Charleston.
The postal service is currently in contract negotiations with the union for postal police. Its members are also trying to get a bill passed in Congress to restore their jurisdictional authority, which would allow them to once again patrol outside postal facilities.
USPS postal police say they are sidelined during time of heightened crime