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Postal Worker With 'Spotless' Record Shoots Two Colleagues

By Bill McAllister
The Washington Post

Postal workers have shot their co-workers so frequently that the phenomemon has become fodder for television comics to joke about. Even personnel directors have developed a short-hand phrase for the problem. "Going postal," they call it.

But what happened at a mail sorting plant in suburban Chicago Tuesday was no laughing matter. A 25-year career postal worker, who had what officials described as a spotless record, allegedly entered the East Palatine, Ill., facility carrying a gun and shot two of his colleagues, leaving one in critical condition.

The accused man, Dorsey S. Thomas, 53, was arrested at his home shortly after the shootings.

It was the latest in a string of violent incidents that the Postal Service said have left 35 postal supervisors and workers dead in the past 12 years, all at the hands of 11 current or former postal workers. Assaults among postal workers have been even more frequent. This fiscal year the agency has recorded 303 assaults among its workers and 77 attacks on supervisors, an increase from 57 attacks on supervisors in fiscal 1994.

Postal spokesmen had no immediate explanation for the Illinois shootings, but were quick to cite figures showing that postal workers face only half the risk of dying on the job than other workers. A number of psychologists said, however, that the nonfatal Illinois shootings illustrate a troublesome trend: that a tiny fraction of the postal work force may now believe violence is an acceptable way of dealing with their difficulties on the job.

The psychologists also suggested the violence among postal workers is becoming a "copycat crime" for some employees who are unable to cope under what postal executives have conceded is the agency's often-harsh, paramilitary management. "It is serious problem," said Chris Hatcher, a clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

" There is the copy cat factor - people see this as an option: I can file the grievance - or I can commit a homicide," said Thomas Harpley, a San Diego psychologist.

The agency's authoritarian style, reflected in the postal service's maze of rigid workplace rules and growing number of grievances, leaves some workers frustrated, the psychologists said. "If you're literally poking your finger in someone's chest, it builds up," said Harpley. "For some people having a gun becomes the ultimate act of power. They come back with a gun and you (the supervisor) are now lying at my feet."

Union officials blamed management for the latest shooting, saying supervisors failed to recognize that Thomas was under extreme stress and on Monday had rejected his request for three days sick leave. The suspect had been "pushed to the edge," said Thomas Fahey, a spokesman for the 360,000-member American Postal Workers Union.