Imagine Grandma, up bright and early to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies for little Timmy. She uses big, tasty semisweet chocolate chips and just a touch of cinnamon, because she knows that's the way her grandson likes them. Still warm from the oven, the cookies are carefully wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in a box, along with a shiny silver dollar and note that reads simply, "Love, Nana Sue." She wraps the box securely with brown paper and ties it with a piece of string she's kept in her kitchen drawer since 1978.
Nana Sue gets into her twelve-year-old Buick and drives to the post office, shaking her head ruefully at how the neighborhood has deteriorated since she moved to Florida 30 years ago. Lately things have gotten so bad that she doesn't go out much. But this trip is worth it; it's for little Timmy. Nana Sue pulls into the post office parking lot. The place looks deserted, she thinks to herself. But no sooner does she climb out of the car, when suddenly a stranger appears, knocking her to the ground and wrestling her purse from her hands. No one hears Nana Sue's screams. Adding insult to injury, the attacker grabs the package before he runs off. The bastard will be eating Timmy's cookies.
And is the United States Post Office going to do anything to prevent such a scenario from unfolding?
No way. Nana Sue would have been safer if she had gone to the Pussycat Theater to catch an afternoon double feature of Make Room for Bambi and Married to the Throb. Because most businesses -- banks and supermarkets, even adult movie theaters -- try to protect customers by hiring security guards to patrol their parking lots. The U.S. Postal Service, however, refuses to provide protection for the thousands of people who walk through post office doors each day.
"We just don't have the manpower," says Miami Postal Inspector Rafael Rivera. "If you are talking about posting a security guard out there, I've never seen it done. I'm sure there are a number of post offices around the country that aren't in very safe neighborhoods that would like one. I just think it is the general policy not to have security guards."
That policy, along with the postal service's apparent lack of concern, has inspired Rosario Saqui to mail a lot of letters -- to U.S. representatives Bill Lehman and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and to the postmaster general in Washington, D.C. -- demanding that something be done about the probelm. Saqui and her husband Angel were robbed and beaten last month in the parking lot of the Little River Post Office, at 140 NE 84th Street. "We didn't realize what was happening," she says. "It was daylight. He grabbed my purse. I was so scared, I was kind of paralyzed."
After the attackers ran away, the Saquis received medical attention inside the post office, where they were told such assaults were not uncommon. "The employees have been asking for a security guard," says Saqui, who has been using that post office for 21 years.
The Saquis contacted the Miami Police Department and tracked down fifteen incident reports for crimes that occurred in and around the Little River Post Office during the past year. Purse snatchings, strong-arm robberies, and vandalism were common; the postal building itself was burglarized three times; at least three cars have been reported stolen from the parking lot. There was also an ominous-sounding report of a man "throwing a deadly missile," filed after someone was caught throwing large rocks at postal patrons.
"I am very frustrated and angry and hurt and terrified," says Saqui. "To not have any safety in a federal building is terrible. I want a security guard at this parking lot."
Patricia Parrish agrees. In April, just a few weeks after Parrish moved to Miami from Detroit, her car was stolen from the post office parking lot. Parrish stopped by the post office on her way to a "Feed the Hungry" meeting at her local church. She says she ran inside, mailed a letter, and ran back out just in time to watch a man drive her car out of the parking lot.
She raced after her 1989 Mercury Topaz, pleading with the thief to stop. "I was pounding on the windows," says Parrish, "but he wouldn't stop. Welcome to Miami. I didn't realize it was that bad here. When I went in to the post office to report it stolen, the postman said he had had two cars stolen himself."
Parrish says postal officials should have taken action after the first few robberies and thefts. "I would think that should be enough for them to say there is a problem here," she says.
"A lot of cars have been stolen from that lot," confirms Terrell Cox, a mail carrier based at the Little River Post Office. "A girl who works here just had her van stolen there a few weeks ago. It's a regular occurrence. It's been going on for so long, you kind of get used to it." Cox says his car was stolen from the parking lot last September. "I don't drive to work any more," he adds. "My wife drops me off now."
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Many of the employees who choose to drive to work try to park in the bank parking lot next door. The bank employs a security guard. "They've never had any problems over there," Cox says. Although he and other workers have requested better security, he says nothing gets done.
Darrell Nichols, a neighborhood resource officer for the Miami Police Department who patrolled the area around the Little River Post Office for four years, says police don't have the resources to place an officer at the post office full-time. Besides, he says, most of the crimes are occurring on postal property, so it should be up to the post office to provide the necessary security. "A business should be responsible for protecting its clientele," Nichols argues. "The car thefts and the assaults are going to continue unless some means of security is employed. But the federal government is not going to listen to us. They don't feel they have to answer to anybody. This is sad and it is just an eventuality that someone is going to get seriously hurt."
According to Cesta Ayers, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman, it is unlikely guards will be placed at the Little River branch or any other neighborhood post offices. "We're not going to provide that kind of security at every branch," Ayers says, and referred all further questions to Rivera and the postal inspector's office.
But Rivera and his inspectors, who commonly investigate mail fraud, seem unlikely candidates for the job. "We're federal law enforcement officers," explains the inspector. "We're not security guards or a cop that walks a beat. Just because someone has a car stolen doesn't mean we can station a man out there to guard the parking lot.