USPS mail carrier Bill Murphy, left, was assaulted twice in West Oakland in the last year. Murphy, alongside Local 1111 leader Ed Fletcher and other mail carriers, called for tougher penalties from the federal government in these cases. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Leaders from the United States Postal Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Justice joined local USPS workers this week to call for greater consequences for people suspected of assaulting letter carriers. 

According to the National Association of Letter Carriers Local 1111, a rise in violent assaults across the East Bay since the beginning of the pandemic has reached new heights, with 31 assaults since February this year and about 100 in the Northern California region. Many of these attacks included weapons and firearms.

Five years ago, according to union leader Ed Fletcher, there were only around three or four robberies per year in Northern California, usually for a letter carrier’s wallet, personal possessions, or USPS property. The USPS considers person-to-person robberies separate from thefts of parked USPS trucks, the destruction and theft of collection boxes, or apartment panel boxes, which are even more numerous. 

“It’s an injustice that a letter carrier whose job is to come to work and serve the community, deliver the community’s mail, the medicine, the packages—we look after the senior citizens, now we have to severely observe our surroundings and maybe get the hell out of [a place] if something isn’t right,” Fletcher said. 

The Oaklandside has previously reported on the rise of these violent assaults. Some speculate that the reason there has been an increase in robberies is because of the growth in pandemic-era home deliveries of valuable goods and items, including personal paychecks to stay-at-home workers. This may have led criminals to target letter carriers for quick-money schemes. 

“Mail carriers are being hurt. They’re being shoved to the ground. They’re getting beat up,” Matt Norfleet, a U.S. postal inspector, told The Oaklandside.

“No worker should live in fear while doing their job. We serve our communities, and we have a right to be safe and protected,” said National Association of Letter Carriers president Brian Renfroe at a press conference Thursday night at the 13th Street Oakland Post Office. “We have to get the message out that any assault on a letter carrier is intolerable and will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

On Thursday, more than 25 letter carriers stood on the steps of the Oakland Post Office and chanted, “Enough is Enough! Protect Our Letter Carriers!”  

Eileen Brown, a letter carrier in Suisun City who attended the meeting, said assaults happen at all hours, on various routes, and in different cities. According to the USPS, Oakland, San Francisco, and Sacramento are ground zero for armed robberies in the region. 

But one common crime involves stealing postal workers’ keys, which can open doors inside apartment buildings and other businesses and access locked mailboxes

Earlier in the week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California announced in Oakland that it was charging 10 people in connection to robberies of letter carriers, including for possessing credit cards, fake USPS IDs, and counterfeit checks. One Oakland resident, Derek Hopson, allegedly stole mail and keys this past June. He faces up to 15 years in federal prison. 

“To any copycats or wannabes out there who might consider robbing a postal worker, I ask you to consider the years you will face in federal prison, the price on your head, and that postal inspectors will not stop hunting you. The proceeds of this crime are not worth your freedom,” U.S. Postal Inspector in Charge Rafael Nuñez said.

Local 1111’s Fletcher wants the federal government to ramp up arrests. “There are way more crimes that are being committed. We need all resources put into this,” he said. 

Bill Murphy, an Oakland mail carrier who has been robbed twice in the last year, including once by having a shotgun pointed at him, told us on Thursday that he feels hopeful that the legal authorities are working with local and national enforcement agencies to prevent more assaults. 

“Hopefully, they’ll catch more of these guys, so I don’t have to worry about this,” Murphy said. “My customers really need me. I feel a bond of service with the other carriers to keep it up, to keep working.”

Letter carriers feel abandoned and scared

An Oakland postal worker picks up mail at a corner mailbox. Several carriers have been attacked in recent months in the middle of their routes. Credit: Amir Aziz

The first time Murphy was robbed, he was stuffing a mailbox when a man approached him and asked to get his keys. He said the person who ultimately robbed him was part of a group sitting inside a car watching him. 

“Two minutes later, I hear them call, ‘Hey, Mr. Mailman.’ I turn around, and there’s a man with a gun, and I’ve got my satchel and mail in my hands, and he is like, ‘Gimme your keys.’ I gently tossed them to him. Then he asked me for my satchel. And maybe he was nervous because he turned and got back in the car, and then they drove away. I was so disoriented. I didn’t even get the license plate.”

Ricky Cox, another long-time carrier, told The Oaklandside that several postal service trucks were damaged this past week when someone tried to break into them using a drill on the locks.

“I feel terrible going out now. Your mind’s gotta be focused on your job, but then also you gotta be focused on family,” Cox said. “Maybe we need to get hazardous pay or something.” 

Eileen Brown, who works in Suisun City, said she’s attended local neighborhood watch meetings to make people aware of the crime wave. She said she wishes the postal service would create an emergency button that immediately notified authorities when they were robbed. 

“We are alone out there, we are unprotected. Especially if it’s dark and I’m worried about us at night. I’m just hoping for a positive change,” she said. “The people respected us, and now it’s like they’re dragging us down the street just for our keys. It’s terrible.”

Local 1111’s Fletcher said that some carriers are so traumatized they haven’t returned to work even two years after their first assault. He sometimes calls to check in on them. 

“They’re scared for their lives and are extremely leery of going out. We’ve had to move them to different areas, including one in the Laurel [neighborhood] office that was robbed.” Fletcher said that for the first time as a union leader, he’s had to help carriers file claims for the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers Compensation for traumatic gun incidents. 

Federal investigators say they’ll pursue cases for however long it takes

National Association of Letter Carriers president Brian Renfroe spoke at the press conference in Oakland yesterday. Credit: Jose Fermoso

Matt Norfleet, the U.S. postal inspector, said Thursday that inspectors are working with local authorities, including the Oakland Police Department, to follow up on tips. One example of this relationship is when local cops arrested a person for drunk driving and found stolen mail in the back of the car. That lead was sent back to postal inspectors, which led to an arrest. 

“We’ll keep files open, keep investigating them as long as we have to,” he said. 

Norfleet told us there are two main things people can do to help investigators find people who have stolen keys. First, he said they (or their landlord) should check security video for suspected criminals opening mailboxes if they live in an apartment building. Second, Norfleet recommended they check for missing credit cards or checks from their mail, which he said are most easily converted to cash by criminals. They should also look for mail that includes important identity information like driver’s licenses, Visas, and passports.

Investigators use that type of information to find out whether the thieves worked alone, whether they shared the keys with others in an underground crime ring, and whether they made a counterfeit version of it. Sometimes, the person who stole the keys is not the person who is caught with them. Regardless, it is a federal crime to have a stolen USPS key.

“We don’t even really have to prove they did the robbery. You can still go to prison for 10 years just for having it,” said Norfleet.

While letter carriers hope people look out for their safety and help gather information about assaults, he does not want Oakland residents to engage with robbers directly. 

“People who have those stolen keys and are coming into apartment complexes in the middle of the night to steal the mail are almost always armed,” Norfleet said. “I want to remind people that the mail is important, but if you see a mail theft in progress, call 911 first, and please don’t risk injury to confront somebody.”

The National Association of Letter Carriers’ Renfroe said the general public can look out for carriers by calling in tips about assault cases. Tips that lead to arrests and prosecution have a reward of up to $150,000 and can be provided at the USPS website or directly to USPS inspectors at 1-877-876-2455.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.