Pizza delivery drivers face assaults, robberies

He pulls to the curb in his dented sedan, grabs a bag containing the extra-large pepperoni and strides to the front of a dilapidated-looking rowhouse.

Pizza deliveryman Shakeel Anjum knows too well that criminals have attacked people in his line of work several times recently, and he's working at a brisk pace.

He rings the bell and gets no response. He calls inside on his cellphone and gets no answer.

That's a bad sign to Anjum, who has been robbed and assaulted on the job. He returns to his car, starts it up and drives away.

"The longer I'm standing out there, the greater the risk," he says. "Safety over mission, that's what I say."

Anjum, 36, a driver for Ultimate Pizza in Brooklyn, is one of the thousands of men and women paid to deliver food in the Baltimore area each night.

The work comes with inherent dangers — unarmed individuals known to be carrying cash make easy targets for criminals, police say — but people like Anjum are especially vigilant in the light of a span of three crimes against drivers made the news.

On Oct. 10, three assailants robbed a delivery man in Columbia. Three days later, a 20-year-old man shot a driver on Terra Firma Drive in Cherry Hill. Then, four men mugged yet another delivery man in West Baltimore, driving off in his car.

"It's hard for us to track this kind of crime, so I'm not sure if we can describe this as a trend, but we do, of course, urge drivers to proceed with caution," says Sgt. Anthony Smith, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department. "Common sense is the best approach."

That advice might seem an understatement to Anjum, a Pakistani national with an engineering degree who started driving three years ago after a business venture failed.

He enjoys the variety of his job, he says, and the interesting, sometimes eccentric characters he encounters on his route every night. But he's learned that things can turn from interesting to life-threatening in an instant.

On a snowy night in January last year, someone phoned an order in to the shop on East Patapsco Avenue, one of the two Ultimate Pizza stores in the area.

Valerie Anjum, Shakeel's wife, happened to be working the phones that night. It was so busy, she says, that she failed to notice on the Caller I.D. that the order was coming from a pay phone.

That's a tipoff that the caller might not want to be traceable — always a red flag, the pair say.

"I can't believe I was so distracted," Valerie Anjum says.

When Shakeel Anjum showed up at the house, two men tried to yank him inside. Just as one began pepper-spraying him in the eyes, he realized there was no furniture inside; it was a vacant house.

He fought back, and when the skirmish spilled outside, Anjum gashed his hand on a fence, then crashed onto the front walk, breaking his right arm. He has since had three surgeries, one to install plates and screws and two others to adjust them.

"Here I am trying to make an honest living, and these [jerks] do this to me," he says, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a 12-inch surgical scar.

Eleven months later, he was robbed again, this time at gunpoint as he carried a pizza through a darkened area. That assailant, too, got away — with the $100 Anjum was carrying.

Though by no means a regular occurrence, such incidents are anything but rare, says Tahir Shabbir, owner of Prima Pizza & Subs in Essex. One of the shop's drivers was robbed at gunpoint for $70 in September.

Shabbir, who sometimes makes deliveries himself, says he was robbed a few years back and has narrowly escaped trouble on three or four other occasions.

To Shabbir's surprise, the robbery took place in a relatively affluent neighborhood. As he approached the house, several assailants jumped out from behind a row of trees, flashing a gun.

That drove home a point he shares with all his drivers — that you can never assume you're safe.

"Every time I take a delivery, I look to the right, I look to the left, I look over my shoulder. I feel as though someone is coming after me. You have to," he says.

Nationwide statistics on such incidents are hard to come by. But when concerned drivers banded together six years ago to form a union, the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers, leaders of that movement spent several months combing news accounts from across America to explore trends.

According to — the organization's website — police report one or two assaults against pizza drivers somewhere in the nation every day, and for every such crime reported, as many as 10 are committed.

A quick search of recent headlines suggests the estimate isn't out of line: delivery drivers have been assaulted in Dallas, Denver, San Antonio, Houston, Charleston, S.C., Boston and New York City over the past six months, according to news accounts.

One driver was murdered in a May ambush in St. Louis.

"Oh, heck yes, it's dangerous," says Michael Tiffany, a former leader of the union, which folded in 2009. "I've been attacked at least a dozen times. I've had guns pulled on me. I've had my lip split. I've escaped many more situations than that. You never know when it's coming."

The website codifies plenty of useful information. Attacks have an average of 2.2 assailants, for instance, and their average age is 19 — which means drivers should be alert for pairs of young men loitering near delivery sites, Tiffany says.

In addition, about 30 percent of robberies are spur-of-the-moment crimes, which means it's more dangerous for drivers to carry advertising "toppers" or signs on their cars.

"I give my people toppers, but I don't require them to use them," Shabbir says. "Most choose not to."

Experts say it's crucial for everyone involved to think ahead. The union website advises pizzerias to do call-backs to verify any order, for example, and to decline any order placed from a number that can't be traced. (Criminals often give a dummy address, then lie in wait nearby.)

It also tells drivers to carry less than $50 in cash, to park as near to a customer's address as possible, to avoid delivering to unlit or vacant houses, and to remain in the car — with doors locked — and call inside if anything seems amiss.

Anjum agrees with that.

"It's far safer if the customer comes out to me," he says. "That way I don't have to walk through dark places. If I don't like what I'm seeing, I can just drive off."

In his time on the job, Anjum says he has learned the nuances of his area, a portion of South Baltimore and northern Anne Arundel County known for high crime rates.

He swaps jovial banter with many regulars, and at each of his more than 20 stops, he knows well ahead of time whether he has visited the address before.

Pulling up to one unfamiliar building, he says he must be especially wary. It sits on a corner and is not especially well-lit, a combination that means attackers could be hiding just out of view.

He gets on his cellphone, calls inside and this time gets an answer. He grabs the hot bag, carries it to the front door and makes a businesslike exchange. He returns with a smile on his face.

He has received a $5 tip, a good one for this route, he says, and during the current economic downturn, it's a welcome amount.

But in this line of work, he tries to remember that money isn't everything, a fact that has become even more apparent over recent weeks.

"I always remember that something can go wrong," he says, steering the old sedan back into traffic. "I was looking over my shoulder that whole time."