Hennepin County ban on library troublemakers riles up activists

Photo: Library Patrons Union

These days public libraries in urban areas often operate as drop-in centers for the homeless, vagrants and drug users, as much as anything else. To protect the public and employees, staff of the Hennepin County Library system not only must patrol the corridors for problematic patrons but also routinely notify authorities and eject offenders for trespassing.

Yet for one fringe group of activists, it’s the offenders who are victims in need of protection from being tossed out of the library, anti-social behavior not withstanding. The group’s webpage gets right to the point.

Were you kicked out of the library? Did you feel unwelcome? Treated badly? See another patron treated badly?

The so-called Library Patrons Union describes members as “explicitly leftist” abolitionists who reject “punishment or exile as organizing strategies.”

Much of what people are trespassed for aren’t causing harm to others, but may indicate the need for support or a change in policy including trespass based on sleeping, eating, cursing, and personal hygiene. Many reports don’t indicate disruptive behavior before guards or staff inserted themselves.

It turns out authorities responded to thousands of calls from Hennepin County libraries in 2022 that the Star Tribune says resulted in banning more than 500 individuals from the system’s facilities.

In 2022, the security division of Hennepin County Facility Services responded to 10,500 calls from libraries across the county. The vast majority of those calls, about 8,100, were from Central, for everything from medical emergencies to security incidents.

That year, security issued 534 trespass notices, which typically result in temporary bans, at seven of the library system’s 41 branches. Nearly three-quarters of those notices were issued to patrons at the Central Library.

The top reasons for bans are drug use, assault and threats. The most common length of a trespass ban was 90 days, but about 42% of bans were for 30 days or less.

Demographic data about who was banned is incomplete. In the 254 cases when race was recorded, a little more than half of trespass notices were issued to Black patrons.

The ban can be enforced for up to a year, depending on the severity of the offensive behavior.

Engaging in indecent conduct which is or may be offensive to others, assaulting Hennepin County staff or others, violations of state statutes that could constitute a gross misdemeanor or felony, and/or repeated conduct that resulted in, or could have resulted in, prior trespass notices.

The fact many libraries have also become hubs for various social services in an effort to justify their existence in the digital age only further complicates efforts to maintain order.

Library officials say all are welcome, as long as they follow certain rules.

Hennepin County put a full-time social worker at Central in 2018 to help address the increasingly complex needs of patrons that are beyond the services traditionally offered by libraries. They’ve also expanded social services at the Franklin branch, and between the two locations recorded 3,600 encounters with patrons in the past 18 months.

The activists, however, insist authorities go too far by also policing library bathrooms when necessary.

There are multitudes of reasons that patrons may be in the bathroom for longer periods of time, and counting down the time outside the stall or door, bringing multiple guards into the bathroom, and yelling or blocking the door are escalations not “wellness checks.”

The patrons union encourages individuals who get banned from the library system to fill out a form on their website. One of the questions: How likely are you to use that library again?