TIME Government

Americans Actually Love the Post Office

United States Postal Service clerks sort mail at the USPS Lincoln Park carriers annex in Chicago
USPS mail clerks sort packages in Chicago, November 29, 2012. A new Gallup poll shows that most Americans think the post office is doing a good or excellent job despite its financial difficulties. John Gress—Reuters

Poll finds that the beleaguered USPS is the nation's most-liked government agency

Complaining about the post office is an American pastime, like griping about Congress, or whining about the DMV. Who, in their right mind, actually likes dealing with the post office?

A lot of people, it turns out. According to a new Gallup survey, 72% of Americans say the U.S. Postal Service is doing an excellent or good job. That puts the USPS ahead of 12 other government agencies, including the FBI, the CDC, NASA and the CIA. And the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to think highly of our much-maligned courier: 81% of 18-to-29-year-olds rated the post office’s job as excellent or good, while 65% of those over 65 said the same thing.

So what accounts for the post office’s surprising popularity? Age, for one.

(MORE: The Postmaster General Hangs Up His Mail Bag, With a Parting Shot at Congress)

As the volume of letters has declined, the USPS has evolved to become as much a courier of packages as it is a way to send and receive first-class mail. In the last few years, the post office has not only expanded its delivery of parcels (it recently began a partnership with Amazon to deliver on Sundays), but it also often delivers packages for FedEx and UPS in what’s called “last mile” delivery, which are shipments to residents that private carriers don’t service. That means millennials interact less with the USPS at its worst — the interminable lines at understaffed post offices — and more from the comfort of home, where the mailman is the person at the door with their new shoes from Amazon or their iPhone from the Apple store.

The post office is also the one agency that Americans actually see doing its job each day. You see postal employees on their routes. You can see post offices open. When’s the last time you saw an FDA worker inspecting your local restaurant or the Federal Reserve Board in action as it plotted the end of quantitative easing?

Not that the latest survey should make the post office rejoice. The faltering institution has run deficits every year since 2007 and its aggressive efforts to adapt to the digital age have not yet been enough to offset the substantial drop in mail volume and onerous Congressional mandates to fund retirees. But it never hurts to have the public on your side.

TIME Crime

Utah Looks to Old Execution Method: Death by Firing Squad

Utah Firing Squad Ronnie Lee Gardner
The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad, with visible bullet holes, on June 18, 2010 in Draper, Utah. Trent Nelson—AP

State legislature may mandate firing squads if lethal injection drugs aren't available

Utah has a unique history with firing squad executions. The state used gunmen to execute Gary Gilmore in 1977, the first inmate put to death after the Supreme Court lifted a five-year moratorium on capital punishment. For years, it’s been one of just two states to allow the method as an option for inmates. And now, state legislators are looking to make it the default practice if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

On Wednesday, the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee voted 9-2 in approving legislation that would bring back firing squads in executions. The bill, which will likely head to the full legislature early next year, would mandate a court hearing prior to an execution, in which a judge would determine whether the state had sufficient drugs to carry out lethal injection. If the judge ruled that drugs were lacking, a firing squad would be mandated; according to the Salt Lake Tribune, State Rep. Paul Ray says the state currently doesn’t have them.

MORE: Execution Problems Revive Talk of Using Firing Squads and the Electric Chair

Utah and Oklahoma are the only two states in recent years that have allowed firing squads in executions, but only Utah has actually used the method since capital punishment was reinstated. The practice soon fell out of favor following the highly publicized execution of Gilmore (famously captured in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song). Public opinion soon shifted toward lethal injection, which became the go-to execution method nationwide and was widely considered more humane. Only three inmates — Gilmore, John Albert Taylor and more recently Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010 — have been executed by firing squad since 1997, all in Utah.

But states around the U.S. have been looking often into archaic and previously discarded methods, thanks to increasing reluctance from pharmaceutical companies to sell drugs to prison systems.

A similar bill in Wyoming that would allow the state to use a firing squad if execution drugs are unavailable advanced in September and is expected to be taken up by the full legislature next year. In May, Tennessee passed a law bringing back the electric chair if lethal injection drugs can’t be acquired or if it’s deemed unconstitutional. (Lethal injection, however, is still the default method of the capital punishment.) And legislators in Louisiana have attempted to revive the chair, but with little success.

TIME Laws

New Video Released for Right-to-Die Advocate Brittany Maynard’s 30th Birthday

Maynard, who died Nov. 1, became the face of the right-to-die movement

A new video released by supporters of the so-called Death With Dignity movement shows Brittany Maynard, on what would’ve been her 30th birthday, advocating for expanded right-to-die legislation around the United States.

The advocacy group Compassion & Choices has released the video, made in August, nearly three weeks after she died Nov. 1. Maynard had moved from California to Oregon in order to take advantage of a state law that allows terminally ill patients to obtain life-ending medication. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, she quickly became the face of the right-to-die movement, releasing several videos that advocated for more states to legalize the practice.

MORE: Brittany Maynard Could Revive the Stalled ‘Death With Dignity’ Movement

Only five states currently allow physicians to give drugs to people who have terminal illnesses. In the last few weeks, lawmakers have drafted or advanced right-to-die legislation in Colorado, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

TIME Crime

Seattle Police May Shelve Plan to Equip Officers With Body Cameras

Seattle police may cancel a plan to give 1,000 police officers body cameras like the one shown here worn by a Las Vegas official on Nov. 12, 2014. John Locher—AP

Officials says excessive public-disclosure requests are to blame

Seattle may drop its plan to equip more than 1,000 police officers with body cameras by 2016 because of the volume of public-disclosure requests already seeking information from future recordings.

A six-month pilot program set to launch in a few weeks might be completely shelved, officials told the Seattle Times, thanks to public-disclosure requests by an anonymous citizen who was looking for daily updates that department officials say would be nearly impossible to fulfill. Officials said the requests — including all recordings from patrol-car and body cameras, as well as 9-1-1 dispatches and checks run on license plates and addresses — would be both too expensive and time-consuming for the department.

A number of cities have been experimenting with body cameras since the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August, which set off weeks of protests. The incident was not captured on video, and the facts of the shooting have been disputed. Police departments in Denver, Anaheim, Washington, D.C. and Ferguson have since announced plans to use the cameras.

[Seattle Times]

TIME Crime

Missouri Just Tied its Lethal Injection Record

Missouri Execution Taylor
Leon Taylor, sentenced to death in the killing of a gas station attendant, was executed by lethal injection early Wednesday morning. AP

Leon Taylor's lethal injection is the state's ninth this year

Missouri executed a convicted murderer, Leon Taylor, early Wednesday morning, the state’s ninth lethal injection this year and the most since Missouri’s record-setting pace in 1999.

Taylor, convicted of killing a Kansas City gas station attendant in 1994 in front of the worker’s 8-year-old stepdaughter, was executed with a single dose of pentobarbital. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declined to grant Taylor clemency, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied hearing the inmate’s appeals to halt his execution.

According to witnesses and prison officials, the execution went off without problems. Several prolonged lethal injections in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona earlier this year were widely considered to have been botched.

Missouri’s pace of executions this year is now second only to Texas, which has carried out 10 lethal injections in 2014 so far. According to experts, Missouri is executing inmates at a higher rate in part because it seems to have an adequate supply of the sedative pentobarbital, allowing Missouri to execute a number of inmates who have been waiting on death row for years.

TIME technology

How Amazon Could Save the Post Office’s Holidays

Michael McDonald
Packages wait to be sorted as a postal worker gathers mail to load into his truck before making a delivery run. The U.S. Postal Service recently announced that it will deliver packages seven days a week through Christmas Day. David Goldman—AP

The U.S. Postal Service begins 7-day holiday delivery this week

This week, the U.S. Postal Service is launching 7-day holiday delivery service for the first time, allowing procrastinating gift-givers extra time to get their packages in the mail. But the extra day each week isn’t merely meant as a convenience during a stressful time of year—it’s an indication of where the post office is heading.

Last year, as the USPS’s total mail volume continued its decade-long decline (from 158 billion pieces to 155 billion), shipping and package volume actually increased by 300 million, an jump of 8.1% from the year before. Revenue from packages increased 9.1%, and that growth helped the post office increase its operating revenue by almost $600 million.

Package delivery is the one sector that appears to show the promise of significant growth for the U.S. Postal Service, which has lost money every year since 2007 and recently announced another loss of $5.5 billion this year. The struggling institution has tried a number of ways to get back in the black: reducing its workforce, closing distribution plants, cutting Saturday delivery, even urging Congress to allow it to deliver beer and wine. Some of those moves have cut costs (reducing employees and plants). Others have been blocked by Congress (eliminating Saturday delivery and shipping alcohol). But the only move that is driving significant revenue growth is packages.

“We lost the bill payment world, which was very profitable for us,” says Patrick Donahoe, the outgoing postmaster general. “But the nice thing is, with e-commerce and the Internet, we’ve had the opportunity to deliver packages for companies like Amazon.”

The postal service has increasingly looked to the Internet, the rise of which has been at the heart of the post office’s declines, as its possible savior, partnering with sites like Stamps.com, for instance, which allows people to print postage from home without trekking to the post office. More significantly, the USPS inked a deal with Amazon allowing it to deliver the online retail giant’s packages on Sundays at regular rates, beginning in New York and Los Angeles before moving out to other metropolitan areas around the U.S.

The agreement with Amazon is reflection of an ever-more-convenient and competitive delivery industry that includes companies like the direct-to-time grocery shipper FreshDirect, alongside eBay, Walmart and Google, all three of which are experimenting with same-day delivery, as is Amazon. But it’s also a sign of the USPS’s increasing commercialization and its continued reliance on partnerships with other companies. While the USPS has long helped FedEx and UPS get its packages to their final destination in what’s called “last mile” delivery, the post office has recently expanded its services into big-box retailers like Staples and Costco, as well as establishing “village post offices” inside convenience stores. And that’s likely just the beginning.

“The obvious area to grow, because people are doing more Internet shopping, is the parcel post,” says Rick Geddes, a Cornell University public policy professor who studies the post office. Still, Geddes says packages alone can’t fix the post office’s problems. “The notion that delivering parcels will somehow be a magic bullet is false,” he says. “[The USPS] needs to become more like a regular commercial entity.”

So far, package delivery is nowhere close to making up for revenue losses from first-class mail, because the volume isn’t as high and it’s not as profitable. Geddes argues that the postal service has to reform in a similar way as post offices in the European Union, New Zealand and Australia, which have all eliminated their monopoly on first-class mail, allowing them to enter new commercial markets while setting their own rates without government approval. Australia’s post office, for example, runs actual retail stores that sell greeting cards, gifts and stationary alongside a postal services section.

But for now, the post office is hoping that 7-day holiday delivery, which will last through Christmas Day, will not only be a convenience for customers, but will give the faltering institution a financial boost. USPS is predicting parcel growth to increase by 12% from last year’s holiday season—equaling 450 million to 470 million packages.

TIME weather

Road Salt Prices Skyrocket After Last Winter’s Snowstorms

Road Salt Woes
Salt is unloaded at the Scio Township, Mich. maintenance yard on Sept. 16, 2014. Some Midwest county road officials are facing price increases that are three times what they paid last year. Carlos Osorio—AP

Prices have risen by up to three times since earlier this year

Last winter’s severe snowstorms triggered road salt shortages around the U.S., pinching supplies and forcing some transportation departments to stock up early. The result: road salt costs have doubled, and even tripled in some parts of the country, thanks to increased demand by states hoping to keep the roads clear.

From Minnesota to New York, states have had to pay premium prices for road salt this year. In Michigan, prices up are up 50%. In Indiana, they’re up almost 60%. In Missouri, some local transportation departments are reporting prices that have doubled. St. Louis, for example, is paying $112 a ton, up from $49 last year.

“Several severe winters are forcing prices upward,” says Todd Matheson, a spokesman for the department of transportation in Wisconsin, where more than four feet of snow fell in some places last week.

Wisconsin normally goes through about 500,000 tons of salt a year. But because of the potential for a repeat of last winter’s severe weather, this year the state has 564,000 tons on hand with 141,000 tons as an option to purchase. Costs are up statewide 14% compared with this time last year, averaging $69 a ton, Matheson says.

Ohio, which got unexpectedly hit with by storms over the weekend, triggering snow emergencies across the central part of the state, paid $105 a ton for a portion of the 600,000 tons of salt it currently has on hand. On average, the state paid $57 a ton compared with $38 last year.

Even with the rising prices, most states are not reporting road salt shortages. The New Jersey Department of Transportation is currently at 100% capacity (164,000 tons) and is in the process of adding 20,000 tons of storage space set to be available this winter. It can also store 716,000 gallons of liquid calcium and 150,000 gallons of brine, which is often applied to roads before a storm hits to help keep snow and ice from sticking.

One state that is running below average is Pennsylvania. The state has in store 90% of the average amount it uses during a winter, says Richard Kirkpatrick, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesperson. The average is 841,000 tons, and last year the state went through 1.2 million tons. But this year it only has 694,000 tons on hand with another 65,000 on order. And the long-range forecast? Above normal snowfall for much of the state.

TIME

The Postmaster General Hangs Up His Mail Bag, With a Parting Shot at Congress

U.S. Postmaster General Donahoe speaks at a hearing on reforming the U.S. postal service, in Washington
U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe speaks at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on reforming the U.S. postal service on Sept. 26, 2013. Donahoe announced his retirement on Friday. Jason Reed—Reuters

Amazon, booze and benefit cuts: How Patrick Donahoe tried to remake the struggling U.S. Postal Service

When Patrick Donahoe began his job as an afternoon shift postal clerk at a Pittsburgh post office in 1975, the mail was still sorted by hand. Packages weren’t much of a priority. And email, let alone online shopping, were decades away.

“It was a dusty, dreary old place,” Donahoe says. Yet he stuck it out for nearly 40 years, rising to become postmaster general of the institution he joined as a 20-year-old student at the University of Pittsburgh making $4.76 an hour in pocket money. On Friday, Donahoe announced the end of that run. He’ll retire on Feb. 1, 2015 after four transformative and tumultuous years running the USPS.

Donahoe faced stiff headwinds when he became postmaster general in 2010. Mail volume was plummeting as people increasingly turned to e-mail and smartphones to keep in touch. And a multi-billion-dollar Congressionally mandated pre-retiree health benefit approved in 2006 had recently taken effect, draining the postal service’s budget. Just a few years before, first-class mail was near 100 billion pieces, close to its peak in 2000 (last year, the post office sent 65 billion pieces). The decline in mail and the pre-retiree mandate led to yearly deficits that in 2012 ballooned to almost $16 billion.

“When you’ve lost 30% of your volume, you’ve got to get your head out of the sand,” Donahoe says. “That’s probably been the hardest part, where you see people that just deny that obvious.”

Donahoe says as postmaster general, he often thought of the steel industry’s collapse around Pittsburgh in the 1970s, and he found the parallels to today’s postal service glaring. People back then, he says, “didn’t realize you had to move quickly and change to stay ahead of problems.”

So he moved fast. Donahoe pushed to close smaller, less trafficked post offices and mail distribution centers. He enticed older postal employees to retire by offering buyouts to tens of thousands of them (postal employment has dropped from 620,000 to 490,000 on this watch). He established “village post offices” in convenience stores and expanded the postal service’s reliance on “junk mail”—one category where volume has grown. Maybe more importantly, Donahoe increased the post office’s reliance on e-commerce and developed a growing partnership with Amazon to deliver packages on Sundays and has even test-marketed mailing groceries.

“We jokingly say, the Internet has giveth, and the Internet has taketh away,” Donahoe says. “We lost the bill payment world, which was very profitable for us. But the nice thing is, with e-commerce and the Internet, we’ve had the opportunity to deliver packages for companies like Amazon.”

Donahoe’s modernization efforts have had plenty of critics, many of whom have accused him of attempting to dismantle an American institution while eroding its services. Many small towns have bristled at the thought of their local post office closing. Postal unions have protested against closures of distribution plants. And what looked like cost savings to Donahoe struck many as reducing customer service to the lowest possible level at a place where it was already in short supply. Just ask anyone who’s stood in line at their own post office.

Donahoe’s reforms have helped shrink the postal service’s deficit — in 2013, USPS lost $5 billion. But the post office has still defaulted on its Congressionally mandated pre-retiree payment and has lost money every year since 2007.

Donahoe found few friends in Congress, which can restrict the kinds of goods the post office delivers and mandate benefits for its employees. When Donahoe pushed to eliminate Saturday mail delivery, which he estimated would save $3.1 billion a year, Congress balked. They’ve been similarly resistant to reducing the Congressionally mandated pre-retiree health payments. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a Republican, and Tom Carper of Delaware, a Democrat, that would rein in the pre-retiree health benefit payments and give the postal service additional ways to expand its services while cutting costs has stalled.

“I think Congress has been irresponsible,” Donahoe says, adding that he believes the Carper-Coburn bill is a reasonable way of fixing the postal service’s problems.

Whether that happens will soon be Megan Brennan’s problem. The post office’s current chief operating officer is set to take over for Donahoe in February and would be the first female postmaster general.

Donahoe says he believes it’s time for him to step aside, even if many of the initiatives that started on his watch are still in their early phases. But he’s just not sure he’s got the energy to keep going.

“At a certain point in time, it’s time to go,” he says. “Some of these things may take three of four more years. I don’t know if I’ve got enough in the gas tank for three or four more years.”

TIME Crime

Ferguson Grand Jury Nearing ‘End of the Road’

Switzerland United Nations US Torture
Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., parents of teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, speak during a press conference about the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva, Switzerland on Nov. 12. Martial Trezzini—AP

Lawyers for Michael Brown's family call for restraint following a decision

The grand jury that will decide whether a white police officer will be charged in the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown is close to wrapping up, lawyers for the Brown family said Thursday.

“We are probably reaching the end of the road as it relates to witnesses,” said Anthony Gray, one of the family lawyers, according to Reuters.

Gray and attorney Benjamin Crump also called for Ferguson residents to exercise restraint when a decision by the grand jury is announced, expected to be sometime this month. Earlier this week, Gov. Jay Nixon said that he would consider deploying the National Guard to quell potential violence in the wake of a grand jury decision.

Ferguson, which is predominantly black but overseen by a largely white police force, became a focal point for race relations in the U.S. this summer when officer Darren Wilson shot 18-year-old Brown. Witnesses have provided differing versions of the incident, with some describing a physical altercation between the two while others saying Wilson shot Brown as he had his hands up.

Pathologist Michael Baden was set to testify Thursday. According to an autopsy performed by Baden, Brown was shot at least six times, twice in the head.

Read next: Ferguson Braces for the Worst Ahead of Grand Jury Decision

TIME justice

Ohio Looks to Shield Lethal Injection Drugmakers

Death Penalty Obese Inmate
Ohio legislators are looking to shield the identity of drugmakers for lethal injections, which are performed in the execution chamber in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. Kiichiro Sato—Associated Press

Bill would keep the source of lethal injection drugs anonymous

Ohio lawmakers introduced legislation this week that would keep the source of lethal injection drugs anonymous.

The House bill, which was introduced on Monday and had its first hearing Wednesday, would protect individuals and pharmaceutical companies that manufacture, compound or supply drugs for executions while keeping those involved in administering the drugs, like physicians, anonymous.

Shielding the identity of drugmakers has become a common tactic by states that have had trouble obtaining execution drugs. Many drugmakers, especially compounding pharmacies—which are not under federal oversight but have been frequently used by prison systems and departments of corrections—don’t want it publicly known that they’re working with states to carry out lethal injections, fearing backlash from consumers and anti-death penalty advocates. Several states, including Arizona, Georgia and Missouri, have secrecy laws protecting drugmakers’ identities.

In October, Ohio’s attorney general said it was unlikely that the state would perform another lethal injection without action from legislators keeping the source of the state’s drugs anonymous. That statement indicated Ohio was likely out of lethal drugs altogether, and needed the ability to reassure compounding pharmacies that their identities would remain protected if the state sought drugs from them.

In August, a U.S. district judge extended a moratorium on lethal injections in the state until January 15, 2015. The order came after the execution of Dennis McGuire, who reportedly snored and snorted on the execution table in January in a prolonged lethal injection widely considered botched.

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