Law enforcement or ‘security guards?’ USPS spars with union over postal police role

The Postal Service is seeing a significant increase in letter carrier robberies and mail theft, but the union representing its shrinking police force says the a...

The Postal Service is seeing a significant increase in letter carrier robberies and mail theft, but the union representing its shrinking police force says the agency is preventing them from protecting carriers on delivery routes.

USPS and the Postal Police Officers Association (PPOA) have been locked in a protracted legal battle for years to determine what jurisdiction postal police officers have beyond USPS facilities.

That legal battle is about to enter a new stage before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

PPOA filed a federal lawsuit on Monday, calling on USPS to comply with a third-party arbitrator’s recent decision to throw out an August 2020 memo, which limited postal police to only carry out their duties on USPS property.

The Postal Service’s Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) states in the memo that “PPOs may not exercise [their] law enforcement authority in contexts unrelated to Postal Service premises,” and that “any off-property utilization of PPOs requires prior approval” of USPIS.

The memo has prohibited postal police officers from protecting mail and USPS employees, or carrying out other law-enforcement activity, anywhere other than on USPS property.

PPOA President Frank Albergo said the memo also prevents postal police officers from engaging in “proactive policing” practices, such as patroling delivery routes in high-crime areas.

“Proactive policing is not about stumbling upon a crime in progress. Proactive policing is targeting specific areas that are prone to crime. A police officer’s mere presence, it deters the crime. This has proven to be effective — it’s proven to work,” Albergo said in an interview. “Every time PPOs have been deployed, there has been a reduction in crime.”

USPS is seeking to narrow the scope of postal police authority, and has argued that PPOs should be paid at a level on par with what private security guards are paid, rather than what other federal law enforcement personnel receive.

Federal law requires USPS to set “compensation for its officers and employees comparable to the rates and types of compensation paid in the private sector of the economy of the United States.”

Albergo said USPS and other postal unions have an easier time agreeing on a private-sector equivalent when negotiating over pay at the bargaining table for their members.

“For letter carriers, that’s not a problem. You have FedEx, you have UPS. But for police officers, it’s a problem. Who are these private-sector police officers? We said railroads, universities and some hospitals have police officers, so that’s what we should be compared to,” Albergo said.

USPS, however, told third-party arbitrator that postal police officers should be paid closer to what “private-sector armed security guards and campus police officers” receive.

These disputes over pay and jurisdiction for postal police come at a time when USPS is seeing a spike in mail theft and letter carriers being robbed.

“Postal employees deserve to feel safe when they’re at work, and it’s just not happening right now,” Albergo said.

USPS Governor Ron Stroman, former deputy postmaster general, raised concerns about a “dramatic escalation” in robberies against letter carriers and a rise in mail theft at a February 2023 meeting of the Board of Governors meeting.

“These trends continued over the recent holiday season and are now almost a daily occurrence,” Stroman said.

USPS, in recognition of these mail thefts, is telling customers to avoid dropping mail off in blue collection boxes on holidays and Sundays, when letter carriers aren’t working to collect the mail.

Stephens said USPS not addressing the rise in postal crime through its police force is “affecting the integrity of the mail for the whole American public.”

“You’re going to drive down the amount of first-class mail people are sending, if people now believe that it’s not a secure way of sending money and important documents,” he said.

Former Acting Executive Postmaster of Chicago, Eddie Morgan, Jr., told members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee in October 2021 that USPS is struggling to get employees to deliver mail in certain parts of the city because of “violent crime.”

Arlus Stephens, the attorney representing PPOA, said USPS is looking to limit what postal police are permitted to do when their presence is most urgently needed on mail routes.

“They’re the only law enforcement agency in the United States that is actively trying to get rid of jurisdiction for its own officers. And yet, there’s been no issue of crime that seems to be more in the public eye now than crime against the Postal Service,” Stephens said. “Violence against mail carriers just seems to be an issue that’s on local news all the time. And the Postal Service could make a big dent in solving it, just by going back to where things used to be.”

USPS spokesman David Partenheimer said the agency declined to comment, citing pending litigation. The USPIS Office of Public Affairs deferred a request for comment to USPS.

Arbitrator strikes down USPS memo, but police jurisdiction still limited

Arbitrator Barry Simon found in February 2023 that the Postal Service’s official position, according to its published handbooks, was PPOs do have jurisdictional authority away from postal real estate when carrying out some duties, such as mobile patrols and protection details for high-value mail.

PPOs, for example, have escorted letter carriers delivering parcels to the “Jewelers Row District” of Chicago, a two-block stretch of businesses that specialize in cutting and setting diamonds.

Simon ordered USPS to follow what’s written in its handbooks, and to rescind its 2020 memo, which prevented PPOs from being used to protect mail and carriers away from USPS property.

Those handbooks still impose limits on what law enforcement activities postal police are allowed to do off USPS property. Simon, for example, notes that PPOs are not allowed to engage in “high-speed pursuit” of an individual in their vehicles.

Simon however, “makes no judgment as to the statutory law enforcement authority of Postal Police Officers, as that is beyond the jurisdiction conferred upon him under the agreement.”

“Nothing in this award should be construed as a directive that the [Postal] Service must deploy PPOs away from Postal Service-controlled real property,” Simon wrote.

‘What, exactly, is the lawful role of Postal Police Officers?’

A federal court has already weighed in on the jurisdiction of postal police officers, but deferred on answering some outstanding questions on what PPOs are allowed to do beyond USPS facilities.

Judge Christopher Cooper, with the U.S. District Court for D.C.,  ruled in November 2020 that USPS didn’t exceed its legal authority, when it interpreted the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act to “require or permit USPS to restrict PPOs’ law-enforcement activities to contexts related to postal real estate.”

Cooper, however also ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction to grant a request from USPS to block pending arbitration through a preliminary injunction.

“This case is the latest proceeding to raise a long-debated question: What, exactly, is the lawful role of Postal Police Officers (‘PPOs’) employed by the United States Postal Service?” Cooper wrote.

Prior to 2006, Congress periodically granted law enforcement authority to PPOs through annual appropriations bills — and permitted PPOs to carry out duties both on and off USPS property.

The 2006 PAEA legislation permanently authorized USPS to employ PPOs “for duty in connection with the protection of property owned or occupied by the Postal Service or under the charge and control of the Postal Service, and persons on that property, including duty in areas outside the property to the extent necessary to protect the property and persons on the property.”

Cooper notes since PAEA was signed into law in 2006, PPOs have continued to perform some law-enforcement duties away from USPS premises. But the union and USPS disagree on the extent of this off-premises work.

PPOA said USPS expanded the off-premises use of PPOs after 2006, and increasingly sent PPOs on mobile patrols, assigning them to protect letter carriers and in-transit mail, as well as deter mail theft.

USPS officials, however, told Cooper they have taken some steps to limit PPOs’ off-premises work, and suggested that PPOs’ authority to engage in law enforcement was confined to postal premises.

The union, however, told Cooper that USPS decisions to rein in postal policy jurisdiction “usually coincided with contract negotiations and were strategically designed by USPS to justify paying PPOs less than they would otherwise earn.”

‘When we’re most needed, that’s when they want us to stand down’

The issue of postal police jurisdiction has, in fact, been a key point of contention for contract negotiations.

David Gaba, an arbitrator brought in to resolve an impasse in negotiations over a new collective bargaining contract, ruled in January 2021 that “PPOs are currently and since 2017 have been ‘police officers,’ with duties that are comparable to police patrol officers or sheriff’s patrol officers.”

USPS officials told Gaba that PPOs have historically performed a hybrid of security and police officer duties, while the PPOA argued the vast majority of duties performed by PPOs are police officer duties.

USPS testified that armed private security guards can perform many of the same functions that PPOs do, but Gaba said the same could be said for other police forces.

“Indeed, if one were to draw a Venn diagram of the job duties performed by both PPOs and private armed security guards, there would definitely be an overlap of job functions. However, a Venn diagram would also show police patrol officers in other jurisdictions having the same overlap in duties,” he wrote.

Gaba ultimately ruled in favor of the union, and determined that “PPOs’ primary duties are very similar to the vast majority of patrol police officers’ duties.”

Albergo said Gaba’s ruling gave PPOA the leverage needed to negotiate a two-grade level increase under the Federal Wage System for all PPOs, as well as retroactive back pay for every year of the 2017-2022 collective bargaining agreement.

But he said continued efforts by USPS to narrow the jurisdiction of PPOs suggest the agency is looking for leverage of its own, the next time both parties come to the bargaining table.

“When we’re most needed, that’s when they want us to stand down,” Albergo said. “It’s obvious that the Postal Service and the [Postal] Inspection Service believe it’s more important to win a labor dispute with the PPO than it is to protect mail carriers and the mail.”

A March 2021 study by Booz Allen Hamilton, commissioned by USPIS, found the agency could “yield cost savings through outsourcing a portion of or all PPO duties.”

USPS employed about 3,000 postal police officers in the early 1980s, but its workforce dropped to approximately 425 PPOs by October 2020. PPOA, in its latest lawsuit, said there are now approximately 344 postal police officers — about a 28% cut from 2020 staffing levels.

Stephens, the lawyer representing PPOA, said these cuts to staffing have taken place through attrition, as postal police retire or leave the agency.

“They just haven’t hired anyone,” he said.

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