Guards, police keeping order at PIma County libraries for $750K a year

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z Guards, police keeping order at PIma County libraries for $750K a yearBy Jamar Younger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Pima County spends $750,000 per year on security for 12 libraries and a community literacy center, a county memo shows.

Three libraries have both security guards and off-duty police officers. Nine others have security guards only.

Library staff members say having Tucson police officers around can be a deterrent to potentially disruptive customers, as well as help families and children who frequent libraries feel safe.

But county officials became concerned after a couple of incidents in January at the Eckstrom-Columbus Library, where patrons argued with library staff and a security guard while the police officer was monitoring a different part of the building.

On Feb. 21, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry sent a memo to the county supervisors, alerting them to recent security issues at some of the libraries. In the memo, Huckelberry said he was concerned about the responsiveness of the police officers assigned to those libraries.

However, he cited another memo from Library Director Melinda Cervantes, who said the incident at the Eckstrom-Columbus Library was isolated, and that library staff and police officials made the proper adjustments.

Library officials have worked with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the off-duty officers, and Tucson police to implement policies to improve communication between officers and staff while protecting library employees and patrons.

Overall, reported incidents at area libraries increased steadily between fiscal 2009-10 and 2011-12, although the libraries received security guards and police officers at different times, library incident reports and memos show.

For example, Eckstrom-Columbus, at 4350 E. 22nd Street, got a police officer in November. The number of incidents decreased from 26 in June, when the library reopened after it was remodeled, to 11 in December, after a police officer was assigned, according to a memo from Cervantes.

Two other libraries have both off-duty police officers and security guards: the Martha Cooper Library, 1377 N. Catalina Ave., and Woods Memorial Library, 3455 N. First Ave.

Nine libraries, as well as the Quincie Douglas Community Literacy Center, have security guards only.

code of conduct

The incidents at the Eckstrom-Columbus library occurred on Jan. 2, when library staff and a security guard asked patrons to stop behavior that violated the library’s code of conduct.

The situations escalated after the visitors became angry, used profanity and made gestures to library and security personnel, Cervantes’ memo said.

Personnel were told to alert the police officer, who was making checks on the other side of the library and not easily accessible. At least one of the confrontations occurred in the parking lot, said Sgt. James Ogden, government security services coordinator for the Sheriff’s Department.

“Someone was getting belligerent with the security officer after he was asked to leave,” he said. “Tucson police got involved and called patrol officers.”

Ogden wrote a report after the incidents, listing suggestions for dealing with angry patrons. Among them: buying small, handheld radios so police officers can easily communicate with the staff, letting security guards and police officers serve unruly customers with suspensions and contacting Ogden or a Tucson police supervisor if an officer is not performing up to standard.

County library officials have also made adjustments, such as purchasing outdoor security cameras for some libraries and rearranging the placement of staff desks, said Amber Mathewson, deputy director of the Pima County Libraries. The library also brought in a security expert to help train librarians and other employees.

“The idea is just to provide safety and security for the public and staff,” Mathewson said.

Some branch managers have forged relationships with neighborhood associations, City Council wards and Tucson police to tackle problems at the libraries and in the surrounding neighborhoods. Woods Memorial Library is a member of the Amphi Community Action Group.

“We have certain goals for the neighborhood,” said Coni Weatherford,. who manages the library: “Decrease crime, increase healthy lifestyles, improve educational success, and increase job skills and employment.”

positive feedback

Despite the concerns, officials say they have received mostly positive feedback regarding the presence of police officers at libraries.

In his report, Ogden said customers have thanked the security team for being present and making them feel safe.

The partnership with Tucson police is also valuable, he said, since off-duty officers usually know a lot of people in the surrounding neighborhoods, which are part of their regular patrols.

“It’s been a phenomenal program, and TPD has helped out greatly,” he said.

Officers have walked elderly people to their cars at night, posed for photos with kids and called the parents of unattended children who are still at the library when it closes, library officials said.

Weatherford, the branch manager, said the officers who work at her library are not only a deterrent to disruption, but also role models for children who come to the library.

She requested an officer in 2011 after a series of fights and other serious incidents.

“It’s been like day and night,” she said.

Weatherford and her staff can now focus on creating new programs and working on community projects with children and other groups who visit the library, she said.

“It’s better for everybody involved. Rather than having to call afterwards and say, ‘There’s an assault,’ the assault just doesn’t happen.”

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