September 21, 2017

Denver News Report Spurs Library Crime Crackdown

 

Denver Public Library Central Library
Photo credit: KM Newnham via Wikimedia Commons

A stepped-up effort to curb unwanted and illegal activities, including the sale and use of drugs, at the sprawling downtown Denver Central Library, CO, is starting to yield results, the city librarian said recently, after a particularly troubling few months that saw 14 drug overdoses on the premises since February, along with dozens of arrests.

New security cameras, a ramped-up and more visible police presence, specialized staff training, and targeted physical modifications inside the building are part of a coordinated effort among city agencies to make the 540,000 square foot main branch safer for patrons and library staff, city librarian Michelle Jeske explained in an interview with Library Journal.

Jeske made no attempt to downplay the seriousness of a problem that has plagued the Central Library for more than a year and became a serious public relations problem for the entire city following a local news report in May. But, she said, the situation has improved. That progress, Jeske said, has taken place even as Denver Public Library (DPL) has remained steadfast to its core mission of providing a welcoming place for all.

“I think that things look a lot better here than they did a month ago,” Jeske said. “I think we’re moving very quickly in the right direction. I also am not naïve enough to think that we’re just going to turn around and focus on something else and this will just go away. We’re going to continue to work closely with our city partners to make sure that we’re hopefully keeping the library a safe and welcoming place and hopefully not just moving the problem somewhere else.”

Drug use, trespassing, and other behavioral issues have been a problem for more than a year, according to statistics provided by DPL. Library security keeps a thick book with photos of patrons banned from the premises. In 2016, 911 calls made from the library totaled 262, a 30 percent jump from the previous year. But the flashpoint for the recent security crackdown was the local TV news report in May that gave the general public a startling glimpse of how widespread the problem had become.

Undercover exposé, undercover police

A reporter for TV station KUSA in Denver, a local NBC affiliate, spent three days discreetly recording a sampling of illegal activities at the Central Library. When his report aired, viewers saw images that included drug deals being transacted inside the library and a woman injecting herself with a needle just outside the front door. The report also cited crime statistics from 2017 that showed a marked rise in fights at the library, as well as drunkenness, drug use, and aggressive behavior.

“As you can imagine, when we saw that we were horrified,” Jeske said of the TV report.

KUSA said the tipoff was an anonymous letter to the station that began with the warning, “The Downtown Library is in crisis.” The author, a woman, later added, “I for one cannot idly sit by and watch the library die,” and the missive went on to detail a myriad of problems at the downtown branch.

Days later, a KUSA follow-up report featured an interview with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, in which he acknowledged how bad the situation had become.

“You know, if my children were small and still going in and out of that library, I wouldn’t want to take them down there either,” the mayor said on camera. “I certainly get it. But our job is to fix it.”

The KUSA broadcast spurred action. As the mayor promised, steps were taken almost immediately. Three days after the first story aired, undercover police arrested two men, ages 43 and 60, for selling methamphetamines in the library. In all, 19 arrests were made in a little more than a month, many for drug use and trespassing. DPL also hired four more security guards, and new security cameras were set up. From May 11 to June 16 alone, police officers spent 219 total hours on duty at the Central Library, according to information provided by DPL.

District 6 Commander Ronald Saunier, the ranking police officer in that sector of Denver, said in a phone interview with LJ, “From what I’ve been told by library patrons and by staff, I think we’ve made progress on the situation.”

Hancock declined a request to be interviewed for this story. His office released a statement that said, “We are aware of the challenges facing our library.… Denver has already increased police presence outside the facility, we are addressing security and staffing levels in and around the facility, as well as working to determine if building and other design changes need to made.”

Rosemary Marshall, president of DPL’s library commission, also declined LJ’s request for an interview. She released a short email statement that read in part, “Michelle is doing an excellent job managing the security issues in consultation with appropriate management staff, DPL Commissioners, and the Mayor’s office. I am sure there is nothing…I can add that has not been shared.”

Saving lives

The problems at the Central Library showed no sign of abating in early 2017. A total of 40 arrests were made between January and May, a 33 percent increase from the previous year. Most were for trespassing by banned library customers, drug violations, and assault.

More alarming was something seldom, if ever seen at the Central Library prior to 2017: drug overdoses. Saunier told LJ that the spreading opioid epidemic is a very real scourge in communities large and small around the United States, and Denver has proven to be no exception.

In February, a 25-year-old man died of an overdose at the facility. After that incident, library staff was trained in the use of the anti-overdose medication Naloxone (sold under the brand name Narcan). Many staffers now carry these Narcan kits. Since then, 13 more overdoses have occurred. Jeske said there were nine reversals credited to the staff’s use of Naloxone. Paramedics, she said, attended to the other four cases.

By now, 62 library staff members are trained in the use of Narcan kits; 36 of those are security officers.

Next steps

Library officials now meet biweekly with representatives from other city agencies to review progress and discuss new strategies. As Jeske said, “A lot of what’s happening here we can’t solve on our own.”

This year, the police department has installed five new High Activity Location Observation (or HALO) cameras outside the library, providing better surveillance. The ramped-up police presence is evidenced by 219 hours logged by police between May 11 and June 16 alone. Some off-duty cops are also used.

“They seem to be serving as a deterrent,” Jeske said of the uniformed officers at the Central Library. “They’ve been working closely with our security staff. Our team can let them know where it’s best for them to be in the building, but also how to behave and interact with library customers.”

Physical modifications inside the building are also part of the strategy. The facilities team is working to replace 30,000 fluorescent lights, an effort that is expected to take six months, to make more areas of the facility brighter. In August, 47 closed-circuit TV cameras will be replaced inside the Central Library and 41 more added inside and outside.

Another plan calls for shelving to allow customers and security personnel to see across larger expanses of the public space.

Police aren’t the only professionals on the scene who can help address substance abuse or behavioral issues: DPL hired its first social worker in 2015; two are now on staff. Social workers carry radios to help address and “de-escalate” undesirable behavior, according to DPL. Peer navigators, trained professionals who formerly dealt with life issues of their own, including homelessness and substance abuse, assist the social workers, Jeske said.

Jeske said overall, about 2,600 people come through the doors daily to use the Central Library, from patrons experiencing homelessness to those who reside in nearby upscale housing and everyone in between. She described overall usage as “good,” and added, “We haven’t seen any kind of decrease in traffic.”

She noted, “We clearly have had some customers express that they’re not comfortable coming here. We’ve also had a lot of people express support.”

The library, Jeske said, does not want homeless people to feel unwelcome.

“The way we manage this is through behavior,” Jeske said. “I feel really lucky to live in Denver where the overwhelming majority of the community understands the issues that cause people to experience homelessness and the open philosophy that we have.

“Of course there are always going to be a few people who don’t get it and ask why do we let them in? How do we keep them out? Our question is, how would you do that? How do you know somebody is homeless? How do you know somebody has a substance abuse issue? We don’t know that.”

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Comments

  1. Stephanie says:

    Long ago, I worked in the Ottawa Public Library in Ottawa, Canada. It’s cold in Ottawa in the long winters, and not cheap to live. We had many homeless patrons. My boss, the Head of Reference, was sometimes asked about keeping homeless patrons out, and her response was classic – “We are a public library. Homeless patrons are the public, as much as anyone else. If they behave appropriately, according to library policies, they are welcome, as everyone is.” My experience at OPL made me apply to library school.

    • Responder says:

      To Stephanie’s comments, if someone is using the library’s resources at the library, it isn’t staff’s business where someone lives or is staying. But, when someone uses the library like it is their home or day shelter, this can easily become problematic as areas become territories, others are dissuaded from using the space, and the library transforms into a building that others do not or are not welcome to use. We are a public space, but so is the courthouse, the airport, and the police department, and yet these entities do not mistake their function and purpose as something other than what they intended.

  2. Crankypants says:

    My biggest issue is administering Narcan to overdosers. I’ve told my boss that the overdoser is going to die on my watch because I refuse to administer medication to a person. I am not a medical professional. The liability associated with providing this “service” is insane.

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