More than mailmen with guns

The United States Postal Inspection Service has a rich history based in the formation of our country and established by our forefathers. From 1737 when Benjamin Franklin was given the task of regulating post offices and holding postmasters accountable, through present day, the service has been a limb of the law enforcement, of crime prevention and the security arm of the U.S. Postal Service.

"The Inspection Service is one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the country and has a reputation for quality investigations," explains U.S. Postal Inspector Lawrence Dukes Jr. "Inspectors get to work a variety of investigations, specializing in crimes impacting the USPS, its employees and customers: the American public."

The Service has three main purposes. First, to assure American businesses they can safely dispatch funds, securities and information through the mail. Second, to ensure postal customers can entrust their correspondence to the U.S. Mail and third, dedication to providing a safe environment for postal employees.

"Inspectors take pride in the ability to protect the USPS employees and the American public from any potential items mailed that could be dangerous or physically and/or financially harmful," Dukes says. "In the course of our duties, inspectors are exposed to various levels of crimes and with various federal, state and local law enforcement agencies."

Members of the Inspection Service are not just mail carriers with guns. Each is a professionally trained federal law enforcement officer with a unique mission. This group of officers is often overlooked but their work has an important impact on the community. In 2009, postal inspectors arrested more than 7,000 suspects for crimes involving the mail or against the Postal Service. The process to become an inspector is similar to other law enforcement agencies, but with a few nuances.

Hiring and academy

To be considered as an inspector, a candidate must be a U.S. citizen between the ages of 21 to 36. The candidate must possess a conferred, four-year degree from an accredited college or university, be in good physical condition and able to meet the agency's height/weight proportion. Other requirements include demonstrating cognitive attributes, no felony convictions or misdemeanor convictions of domestic violence and the must hold a current, valid state driver's license for at least two years. In addition to these basic requirements, the Postal Inspection Service values special knowledge.

Currently the Inspection Service recognizes four special knowledge tracks that make applicants more competitive. First, advanced competency in a foreign language deemed necessary to meeting the Postal Inspection Service's mission, including Spanish, Arabic, Armenian, Czech, Urdu, Thai and Serbo-Croatian. Second, postal experience that includes candidates who have been a U.S. Postal service employee, contractor or intern within the last two years. The third track is specialized non-postal experience, including military, a law degree, certifications in auditing or investigations, specialized computer education or experience, certifications in computer systems, law enforcement and bioterrorism investigations. Fourth, academic achievement, which includes combinations of degrees, work experience and cumulative grade point averages of 3.0 or higher for a bachelor's degree or an advanced degree.
Once selected, postal inspectors attend basic inspector training at the Inspection Service's Career Development Division (CDD) in Potomac, Md., a fully accredited federal law enforcement academy. The academy runs approximately 12 weeks and is designated for the specific use of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.


During the academy, inspectors are issued and qualify with their service weapon. This includes a handgun as well as qualifying with a shotgun. The rigorous training allows beginning through advanced students the opportunity to become proficient in safely handling and discharging a weapon.


Inspectors use a compensation chart equivalent to the Government Service pay scale for GS1811/federal law enforcement officers. "Each candidate's salary will vary between GS 9–12 depending on their experience and qualifications," Dukes explains. Inspectors also receive locality pay (ranging from 13.86 percent to 34.35 percent in 2009) and law enforcement availability pay (LEAP). LEAP increases annual salaries by 25 percent once an inspector graduates from the academy. A federal transfer (1811) would receive LEAP while at the academy. Inspectors fall under either the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) or the Federal Employees Retirement System.

Diversity in assignment

The Postal Inspection Service offers inspectors a wide range of duty locations and a variety of assignment options. Eighteen divisions are located throughout the country and each division consists of multiple domiciles. Some divisions cover multiple states. Some states have more than one division depending on size. "A number of factors go into deciding where to assign new inspectors," explains Dukes. "The needs of the Inspection Service are the main determinant, with recruitment location and other factors also being considered." New hires are assigned based on need right out of the academy. "You can be relocated at the needs of the service," Dukes states. "For the most part, movement is only initiated by the inspector. There is no requirement to transfer."

A number of teams exist within the Postal Inspection Service allowing inspectors to work in a diverse number of areas depending on need, qualifications and interest. Inspectors enforce around 200 federal laws. A few special Postal Inspection teams include:

Violent crimes

Postal inspectors work on national programs related to mail theft, robberies, burglaries, assaults, workplace violence, identity theft, fraudulent change of address, reward program, counterfeit postal money orders, and confidential informants/source of information. Workplace violence within the postal service seemed to hit an all-time high in the 1990s. The Postal Inspection Service is dedicated to making sure all employees are safe from internal and external threats. In response to this, inspectors will step in supporting the Postal Service's zero-tolerance policy and act quickly to provide an "immediate and firm response" including arrest and prosecution. This dedication helped drop postal-related assaults and credible threats from 781 investigated in 2008 to 569 in 2009.

Child exploitation

"The Inspection Service has been investigating the sexual exploitation of children when it involves the use of the U.S. mail for more than a century," Dukes says. "The Inspection Service has partnered with the Department of Justice (Project Safe Childhood) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to identify and assist with the prosecution of those who seek to sexually exploit children. We have inspectors who work directly with trial attorneys of the DOJ's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS)." The Postal Inspection Service was the first federal law enforcement agency to aggressively identify, target and arrest those who produce and traffic-in child pornography. In 2009, postal inspectors identified and rescued 60 children who were victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, initiated 214 new investigations, arrested 187 suspects and identified 39 child molesters. These investigations and arrests include both the identification of individuals, as well as major commercial distribution enterprises. Nearly all cases of investigations of child exploitation by the Postal Service involve the Internet as well as the mail. Due to this, postal inspectors work closely with the DOJ.

Dangerous mail

Any mail containing explosives or biological, chemical, or radiological substances is considered dangerous mail. Inspectors have special training and equipment to detect and prevent prohibited mailings, extortion and threats. In 2009, inspectors responded to 2,974 incidents involving unidentified suspicious powders and liquids. This resulted in 10 arrests and 12 convictions. The Dangerous Mail Investigations (DMI) Group works closely with homeland security and other agencies to reduce threats to the mail system, assure employees of a safe and secure workplace and reduce disruption in postal facilities. Effective response and screening assisted in reducing facility evacuations by 29.6 percent from 2008 to 2009. Also in 2009, 323 postal inspectors met OSHA requirements for hazardous waste operations and emergency response certification. DMI also responds to suspicious items in the mail, such as improvised explosive devices. Inspectors responded to 1,381 incidents of explosive devices placed in mail receptacles, hoax bomb devices, suspicious items found in postal facilities or equipment and mailed explosive devices resulting in 59 arrests and 34 convictions in 2009. Also in 2009, inspectors worked with ATF agents to uncover the trafficking of more than 200 weapons.

Drug trafficking is another concern postal inspectors work to reduce due to related violence and to preserve the integrity of the mail. Working with other law enforcement agencies, postal inspectors arrested 1,278 suspects in 2009 resulting in the seizure of approximately $4.9 million in cash and monetary instruments, 45,964 pounds of illegal narcotics, three firearms and three vehicles.


A security force of armed, uniformed Postal Police Officers (PPOs) are assigned to critical postal facilities throughout the country to provide perimeter security, escort high-value mail shipments and perform other essential protective functions. When New York Jeweler Harry Winston donated the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond to the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., he utilized USPS to ship it. "Based on certain factors related to the mailing, enhanced security measures are sometimes provided," explains Dukes. "It depends on the value and type of shipment if it would need additional security."

Scanning machines

DMIs utilize hazmat field screening equipment. Since 2003, 201 sets of equipment have been deployed and installed to screen unidentified substances found in the mail. Only 305 postal inspectors are certified DMIs. Equipment can also be deployed to National Special Security Events, such as presidential and political events, Olympic Games, Super Bowls and various other gatherings. Working with other agencies assigned to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Special Events Working Group, postal inspectors assist by screening mail at a transportable Mobile Mail Screening Station and utilize vans equipped with X-ray units and field-screening equipment. In 2009, postal inspectors screened mail at 17 events, including Super Bowl XLII and the G-20 Economic Summit.
"To help counter the threat of dangerous biological in the mail, the Postal Service developed the Biohazard Detection System (BDS)," Dukes says. "BDS is a technology that combines both automated air sampling with an internal, automated testing system using DNA analysis to detect dangerous biological agents in the mail stream with extremely high reliability."

Other facilities

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service operates two National Law Enforcement Communication Center facilities. Operators monitor intrusion-detection systems, coordinate emergency response and provide after-hours phone coverage for postal inspectors.

The agency also operates its own crime lab in Dulles, Va. The Inspection Service National Forensics Lab is fully accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board.
"The laboratory consists of latent fingerprints, digital evidence, physical science (controlled substances and chemicals) and questioned document and imaging sections," Dukes says.

The Inspection Service investigates many high profile cases, he explains, including investment fraudster Bernie Madoff, the anthrax mailings, "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, evangelist Jim Bakker, Wall Street inside-trader Ivan Boesky, hotel magnate and convicted tax-evader Leona Helmsley. "All have been convicted, at least in part, because of the work of postal inspectors," Dukes says.

This work has paid off and the Postal Inspection Service and its inspectors have received a variety of awards. Recently Attorney General Eric Holder presented the 2011 award for Outstanding Interdiction Strategy to William E.S. Beaty, postal inspector for the Seattle Division and Gary Nork, postal inspector for the Phoenix Division. In 2009, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's National Victim Witness Coordinator received the Federal Service Award. In the Ponemon Institute privacy trust study, the United States Postal Service was named "Most Trusted Government Agency" for the fifth year in a row in 2010.

"If the mail was used in the commission of a crime or a crime involves postal service employees, we really have no restriction on what we can be involved in," says Dukes. "I believe our mission is unique. The United States Postal Inspection Service has a long, proud, and successful history of fighting criminals who attack our nation's postal system and misuse it to defraud, endanger, or otherwise threaten the American public. As the primary law enforcement arm of the United States Postal Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is a highly specialized, professional organization performing investigative and security functions essential to a stable and sound postal system." Postal inspectors are definitely not just mailmen with guns.

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000 and writes two monthly columns for Perin worked for the Phoenix (Ariz.) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her master's degree in criminology and criminal justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Perin works as the administrative coordinator at a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time she enjoys working as the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.