Chaos and crime lead Duluth library to call in the cops

Remember when libraries were sanctuaries of silence, when even talking in hushed tones met with disapproval? That’s the least of the concerns now at many libraries, particularly those located downtown in big cities. An open-door policy has led libraries to evolve into a de facto daytime drop-in center for vagrants, addicts and drug dealers.

The inevitable chaos and crime that follows has reached a point of no return in Duluth, where the News Tribune says the downtown library has become a regular stop on police officers’ beat.

The police presence has been useful, according to Library Manager Carla Powers.

“We have extra-duty police officer patrols three days a week now at kind of random times, and that has helped a lot. It keeps things calm,” she said.

“We did have some suspicion that there was some drug dealing going on,” Powers said. “We were worried that was happening here, and having the officers around has tamped down on that as well.”

The squad car often parked conspicuously in front of the building not only sends a message, but allows officers to respond to other issues that crop up constantly.

Recent incidents include someone being punched outside the building; a drug overdose that a library security specialist responded to with Narcan; disruptive behavior; and inappropriate or threatening comments made to staff, Powers said.

“It wears on the staff and it’s not the kind of atmosphere that we’re trying to promote here at the library,” she said.

The Duluth library brought a security specialist on board to address the problem. But problems persist to the point where security concerns have become a major issue for employees.

The library recently hired a firm to assess security at its downtown location. Lindsay Woolward, a consultant for Guidepost Assessments, noted that 33% of staff who responded to a survey said that they felt “somewhat unsafe” on the job and nearly 40% said they felt “less safe” than they had previously at the library.

“This is a relatively high proportion for similar institutions that we’ve seen, and it alerts us that the staff are dealing with a relatively high level of threatening or stressful incidents in the workplace,” he said.

Only one-quarter of surveyed staff said the library was adequately prepared to respond to an emergency.

The security assessment found that many visitors to the library also feel threatened, though to a somewhat lesser extent than staff. The Duluth City Council recently passed a resolution endorsing the consultant’s recommendations to enhance public safety at the library.

Guidepost offered a number of recommendations, including ideas for how to reconfigure the library in the future, the idea of co-locating other city services in the building to increase the number of eyes in the building, a better security camera system and improved technology.

Yet the cost of implementing security measures will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The city council has yet to approve spending $135,000 on the first round of changes.