WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Postal Service, which has experienced an extraordinary number of shootings and other violent episodes among its ranks, has begun a confidential and potentially controversial study to determine the type of employee most likely to commit such acts.
The study, following two recent shootings at post offices in California and Michigan, has raised concerns among some workers -- especially Vietnam veterans -- that the service might be about to impose unfair scrutiny or restrictions on them.
Officials of the Postal Inspection Service, an elite branch of criminal investigators who are conducting the psychological-profile study, declined to discuss it in detail, saying they first want to report their findings to congressional committees in the coming weeks.
It was unclear precisely how the information would then be used. But one official described the project as "very sensitive and subject to misinterpretation" by federal employees or the public.
Paul Griffo, a spokesman for the Postal Inspection Service, said officials hoped the study would identify "eight or nine characteristics or common denominators" among employees who have been involved in shootings, assaults or threats of violence. The study began last month with an analysis of about 2,000 postal employees drawn from the files of the Postal Inspection Service, a list that was later winnowed to "a statistical sample" of 300 cases deemed to be representative of the larger group, he said.
Spokesmen for the American Postal Workers Union, the largest organization of postal employees, said they had heard rumors of such a study but had no verification from the Postal Service. They said the service would be better advised to try to reduce stress in the workplace, a condition they said often leads to outbreaks of violence.
In the past 10 years, 34 people have been killed and 20 wounded in 12 post office-related shootings across the country. Job-related tensions or unstable employees were said by congressional investigators to be a factor in each case.
Art Doherty, a Vietnam veteran who is the union's director of industrial relations in Philadelphia, said he feared veterans would be targeted in the psychological study because "veterans no doubt have been responsible for some of the violence."
He was referring to two incidents May 6 when a discharged mail carrier with a history of psychiatric problems stabbed his mother death and killed a former co-worker in Dana Point, Calif., several hours after a disgruntled postal employee in suburban Detroit had opened fire in a Postal Service garage, killing one person and wounding two others before committing suicide. Both had served in the military.
Mr. Doherty said "it would be an insult" for postal officials to identify veterans as a group responsible for violence "just as it would be to identify blacks or Latinos or women or any ethnic or religious group."
He added that "veterans should not be used as a scapegoat for an institution that is repressive, authoritarian, and unwieldy and is rife with poor management."
Mr. Griffo declined to say whether the study, which is nearly complete, had concluded that veterans pose a threat to their co-workers.
"That is an area that's touchy, if you start identifying or singling out
any one group as a threat," Mr. Griffo said. "That is not what we're looking at at all."
Mr. Griffo said the study involved not only the highly publicized post office shootings in recent years but also hundreds of internal investigations of threats and assaults that never became public. He denied rumors among some postal employees that confidential lists have been prepared so that supervisors can identify "dangerous" workers.
"There is no list of names. There is no list of employees who fit the profile," he said.
Mr. Griffo said the 12-member task force working on the study planned to verify its findings with behavioral scientists, psychologists and criminologists before reporting the results to Congress.
An investigation last year by the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee found some unstable people slip through Postal Service hiring procedures and urged tougher employment screening.