Manitoba

Armed fights, gang recruitment among incidents that prompted security screening: Winnipeg library

Mandatory bag checks and screenings have found 500 to 700 needles since controversial security measures came into effect at the Millennium Library about three months ago, library services manager Ed Cuddy says.

Library services provides verbal report to City of Winnipeg committee on rationale for beefed-up security

Visitors at the Millennium Library have to pass through security screening before entering. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Winnipeg's library service says controversial screening measures at Millennium Library were prompted by a "huge increase in aggressive" incidents — including needles found in the children's section of the library, ammunition discovered in the bathroom and armed fights in the downtown library.

"We had a fight break out where one individual pulled out an axe, like a hatchet. We've had masked gang members come into the library in disguise, fanned out, stake out the building," library services manager Ed Cuddy told the City of Winnipeg's standing policy committee Wednesday.

Since mandatory bag checks and security screening were implemented about three months ago, staff at the library have felt safer, he and community service director Cindy Fernandes told the committee in a verbal report, commissioned by Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge) in April.

"They don't feel apprehensive about coming in," Cuddy said.

"These are people just trying to make a living who are passionate about libraries, and I think they deserve to be safe and feel safe in their workspace, as do the customers coming in."

The new measures have resulted in the discovery of 500 to 700 needles since they were implemented, he told the committee.

Winnipeg library services manager Ed Cuddy says staff at Millennium Library feel safer since new security measures were brought into effect in February. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

In response to CBC's inquiry about armed fights referred to in the report, Winnipeg police said there were two incidents within three minutes of each other at the library a year ago.

Police received reports of a fight involving a group of people inside the Millennium Library on the afternoon of May 7, 2018, Const. Jay Murray said in an email.

"One person was armed with a weapon described as an axe," Murray said. The people fled when police arrived.

Three minutes later, police received another report that a female library patron had threatened the caller with a machete, but no weapon was seen. Police couldn't find the person who made the threat.

Although they happened in the space of minutes, police don't think the two reports were related.

Protests against screenings

Those incidents were two of the examples that Cuddy and Fernandes used to explain why the library started screening patrons — an idea Cuddy said was proposed by several staff members.

The security measures have prompted protests by local groups who say they create an unwelcome atmosphere, displace homeless library patrons and disproportionately affect vulnerable populations who rely on the public space.

Critics also said the library failed to consult with relevant community organizations about the move, and instead relied on consultations with Winnipeg police and a third-party security firm that suggested the measures were a good idea.

The complaints prompted Rollins to request the verbal report, and an expanded written report due this fall, to explain the rationale behind the measures and provide examples of alternatives used in other jurisdictions that are meant to maintain safety.

Cuddy and Fernandes told the committee the majority of security incidents have involved substance use, intoxication and violent or threatening behaviour.

"There was collateral impact on people standing around," Cuddy said. "We had [an] individual who was under the influence of a substance pick up a computer monitor and throw it out at a staff member."

Guards search bags and use metal detectors on visitors entering the Millennium Library. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Since 2013, the rate of incidents reported by Millennium staff has jumped 74 per cent, Fernandes said.

The number of threats increased 162 per cent, intoxication spiked 103 per cent and assaults rose 73 per cent, Fernandes said.

"Millennium is a designated hotspot with the Winnipeg Police Service for the past number of years, with almost daily visits by either Winnipeg Police Service or the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service," she said.

Teens trafficking drugs

There was an increase in substance use by people visiting the library and a rise in gang activity that raised staff safety concerns when Cuddy, a longtime library employee, took on an administrative role in 2011, he said. 

For example, he said the library opened an area for games on the main floor but the space wasn't used as planned.

"We had gang members come in; they were using the space to recruit younger teens into trafficking drugs," Cuddy said.

The library was forced to remove the games from the space, Cuddy said.

Another incident involved a teen with a replica handgun who drew the Winnipeg police tactical unit to the library.

"He came very close to being shot," Cuddy said. 

The library has tried to get ahead of the issues by stationing security guards in areas with the most negative activity, he said. They've also made design tweaks to the building meant to deter problematic behaviour in the children's section, given staff mental health and first aid training and learned about crisis intervention techniques from social workers.

"But the amount and the frequency of the incidents coming in is so high that, you know, we're fighting an uphill battle to try and equip staff with the resources they need," said Cuddy. "And really, it's beyond your scope."

The final written report on the the new measures is due before the standing policy committee in September.

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