'It's a dark stain on our city': Millennium Library lovers meet with staff to discuss security measures
Manager says beefed-up screening was needed to combat spike in violence, weapons
Critics of beefed-up security measures at the Millennium Library voiced their concerns Thursday night, while library staff shared details of the threats those measures were designed to address.
Thursday's meeting at the University of Winnipeg was held to allow members of the public to speak out about new screening protocols at the downtown facility.
"It's a dark stain on our city and the library system," said Rob McGregor, one of the event's organizers.
About 50 people showed up at the meeting, which McGregor said he and others organized because the library didn't hold public consultations of its own.
"[The security screening] turns the library into a different kind of building than it used to be," he said.
"It used to be a very welcoming space that anybody can come in."
On Feb. 25, the library began screening visitors before they could enter. Guests have their bags searched and undergo handheld metal detection before entering.
Kids with their parents aren't screened, but all youth over age 13 are.
People with prohibited items have to remove them before heading into the library, and those who decline the screening are not allowed in.
The library said an increase in incidents prompted them to make the move.
Hatchets, machetes, replica gun
At the time, Ed Cuddy, the manager of library services, didn't go into specific details about what those incidents involved or how many there were.
He was invited to the meeting to explain to the public what prompted the seemingly sudden implementation of security screenings.
He told the crowd since 2013, when they began tracking security concerns, incidents had increased by 75 per cent.
"Seventy-five per cent of those incidents are incidents involving intoxication, violence, irrational behavior, things that have an impact and often lead to 911 calls," said Cuddy.
He also said more of them started to involve weapons.
"Things like hatchets being wielded, machetes, blades are very commonplace. We had a situation with a replica gun that was alarming because everyone thought it was real," he said.
Over the last few years, he said the library consulted with community organizations, hired two crisis workers and met with staff and union representatives to try to find solutions.
"[Staff] were telling us that they were becoming so jaded from the daily tone in the building that they were struggling to provide good customer service," he said.
"They were being threatened constantly, they were seeing needles in the stacks, activity in the washrooms, and it wasn't going away," he said.
"I lost a lot of sleep that week when we talked to staff because of what I was hearing, and that led us to seriously consider working with the police on implementing screening."
Cuddy said bringing in the screening measures was a last resort, because the library is obligated to comply with health and safety regulations.
"I can't shrug my shoulders and say, 'Oh well, my staff will just put up with this.' We had to do something."
People at the meeting expressed concern over the lack of public consultation before implementing the measures. Cuddy said it was an operational decision that didn't go through a public process.
"Hindsight being 20-20, I think more consultation would have been a good thing, but better late than never."
People also said that the security measures target homeless and marginalized people, and make them feel like their privacy is being violated.
"I was disappointed in the new security measures when I heard about them and even more so when I experienced them first-hand," said McGregor, who visits the library a few times a month.
"There's, I believe, a racial profiling element of it that I've seen first-hand. The security guards are much more thorough with people who look a certain way."
McGregor said the goal of the meeting was to talk openly about the situation. People were divided into groups to discuss concerns and work to find solutions.
Drug and alcohol use
Cuddy said since implementing the measures at the library, staff have confiscated lots of needles, some of which were pre-loaded.
McGregor disagreed with taking needles away from drug users.
"To force people to throw out their needles would make it more likely that they would want to share needles, because they would have no other option," he said.
"So it's those kinds of things that demonstrate how poorly thought out this entire endeavour was."
Turning away drug and alcohol users forces them to use substances in the street, McGregor said, and he'd rather see library staff approach the problem from a harm reduction perspective.
"I'd rather people be consuming alcohol in the library where it's safe and warm than to be outside when it's –35 and passing out and freezing to death," he said.
Results will be monitored
The library has said it plans to install lockers so that people can lock up their prohibited items before coming in, but Cuddy said there's a six-week wait for them to be installed, something he hadn't foreseen.
He said for the time being, people will be able to leave items with security and pick them up on their way out.
The library will be monitoring the process to see if incidents go down, or if the number of visits to the library changes, but staff are already seeing an improvement, Cuddy said.
"I'm hearing from staff that the space is quieter. One staff member told me they felt a huge weight had lifted off their shoulders."
Cuddy said he's open to hearing feedback and solutions from the public, and is working to improve the screening process and address concerns.
McGregor would like to see the city hire addictions and mental health workers, along with people trained in conflict resolution, instead of security guards.
"The city needs to designate money to hire unionized, trained staff," he said.
"To help them, rather than just remove them and make them somebody else's problem."