Make the Right Call | Editorial

In many towns across the United States, seeing members of the police in the public library is common-place. Off-duty officers moonlight as library security guards. Library programs like “Coffee with a Cop” aim to help the police develop closer bonds of trust with the community. And police are often called to deal with behavioral issues or threats to patron or staff safety. But as the past weeks of protest after the police killing of George Floyd, among others, make plain, for a substantial portion of patrons and staff, the presence of the police is itself a threat.

The police should be a last resort

Meredith Schwartz head shotIn many towns across the United States, seeing members of the police in the public library is common-place. Off-duty officers moonlight as library security guards. Library programs like “Coffee with a Cop” aim to help the police develop closer bonds of trust with the community. And police are often called to deal with behavioral issues or threats to patron or staff safety.

On one level, it makes sense: two city departments collaborating on civic goals. But as the past weeks of protest after the police killing of George Floyd, among others, make plain, for a substantial portion of patrons and staff, the presence of the police is itself a threat. No matter how many Black Lives Matter displays or reading lists we create and share, if we want Black patrons and staff to feel safe in the library, the police must not be a daily presence.

It won’t be easy or quick to retool public libraries’ standard operating procedure to minimize reliance on law enforcement, but I believe it can be done. Public schools are often still more intertwined with the police owing to the presence of on-site student resource officers, yet Denver, Seattle, Oakland, and Minneapolis school districts have already cut contracts with their local forces, and more are likely to follow. Our field should keep a close eye on how school districts do it and learn from their examples.

Some library initiatives already underway have been shown to reduce the need to call the cops. On-site public health nurses such as in Arizona’s Pima County Library, and social workers as pioneered by San Francisco Public Library, can address behavioral health problems. Restorative justice practices give libraries a workable alternative to enforce nonviolent conduct violations. Peer navigators such as Denver Public Library’s can better relate to patrons’ lived experience. Requiring trauma-informed training for security employed by the library, and staff in general, could help de-escalate conflicts. The Library Freedom Project has more advice.

Staff can be trained to call alternative resources for the particular problem they face, from runaways to sexual assault. Community-based crisis intervention initiatives, for example, escalate less than one percent of calls to the police. That’s a win for everyone—even the police, freed to focus where they’re needed. Library directors looking to build or renovate should consider Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, a multidisciplinary approach that brings law enforcement, architects, city planners, landscape and interior designers, and resident volunteers together to create a climate of safety that could help stop problems before they start. A designated mediator program can help resolve disputes among coworkers or neighbors. Cure Violence uses disease control methods to reduce violent crime by detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating the highest risk individuals, and changing social norms. A resource list of such options at the desk might help library workers find the right alternative in the moment.

Librarian research skills may be needed to track down local services and produce a clear ready reference document. And of course, not every community will have all these resources yet. Where they are missing, the library can serve as an advocate for developing them, and as a meeting place for those interested in doing so. That work will take time, patience, and networking with those whose trust the library may have to earn because of its status as a governmental—and hence police-aligned—institution.

I won’t pretend any or all of these options can completely replace calling the police. We all remember the shooting death of a librarian in Sacramento last year. If you have an active shooter, you’re going to want law enforcement. And programs like Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights and a Civil Society, which uses local history to educate police on issues of racial bias, should certainly continue. But I do think public libraries should aim to drastically reduce their reliance on police presence—not because security is not important, but because it is. If we commit to making the cops a last resort, we can bring our field’s collective creativity and convening powers to bear on building a better infrastructure together, one that really makes all patrons and staff members feel safe at the library.

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Meredith Schwartz

mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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