Ottawa

Main library branch sees 4 times as many disturbances as almost any other

The Metcalfe Street branch recorded more violent incidents and property damage over a 14-month period than almost any other branch in Ottawa, according to data received by CBC News through a freedom of information request. 

Library changed policy to lock doors early mornings after fights, vandalism

The central branch of the Ottawa Public Library reported 123 acts of violence, vandalism, drug use and disturbances between January 2019 and February 2020. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The central branch of the Ottawa Public Library (OPL) recorded more than four times the number of violent incidents and property damage over a 14-month period than almost any other branch in the city, according to data received by CBC News through a freedom of information request. 

From January 2019 until February 2020, the Main branch reported 123 disturbances that included altercations, aggressive behaviour and noise violations, as well as a number of assaults, threats of violence and harassment.

By contrast, all other Ottawa Public Library branches except for the Rideau Street location recorded fewer than 30 incidents over the same period.

The Rideau branch had slightly more incidents than the central library, but according to Donna Clark, division manager of branch operations at OPL, they weren't as threatening. 

Aggressive incidents 'take a toll on everybody,' said Donna Clark, division manager of branch operations at OPL. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"Rideau's incidents tend to be more drug-related or [involve] intoxication without a lot of violent follow-up ...  whereas [the incidents at] Main tend to be a lot more physical and a lot more verbal in [their] nature and [involve] threats and harassment of staff," she said. 

Clark said the data isn't surprising, given the central branch is the busiest Ottawa Public Library location, with 8,000 visitors a week in normal times.

By contrast, some suburban branches had as little as three or no reported incidents. 

'Stressful' incidents prompted door policy change

In November 2019, OPL made the decision to keep the doors at the central branch locked to the public until staff arrive at 9:30 a.m., after damage was done to the lobby and public washrooms.

The exterior doors of the Metcalfe Street location used to open as early as 6 a.m., four hours earlier than the library itself.

In February, Coun. Catherine McKenney criticized the decision, saying the new door policy left members of the city's homeless population without a place to stay warm in winter. 

The data shows the "extremely stressful" number of incidents OPL staff and security guards are dealing with, Clark said. 

"You're there to do a job to connect people with the [library's] services," Clark said. 

"And that becomes very difficult when you're dealing with negative behaviour that crosses the line from being just disagreeable to being a threat to workers and other customers."

Fire, threats of violence

Some incidents are more serious than others. 

There have been five reported assaults and the same number of threats of violence. Although the data does not specify who the victim was, Clark says it's "not uncommon" for customers to threaten each other as well as security guards.

There were seven incidents of harassment, including members of the public making "aggressive [and] inappropriate" remarks.

Of the five cases of vandalism listed, one included a fire. Another cited a member of the public who'd been kicking and damaging library property. 

The Metcalfe Street branch has had incidents of vandalism that include public urination, a broken display case, and graffiti that's threatening to women, according to Clark. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Coun. Matt Luloff, chair of the library board, said in a statement to CBC that "the safety and security of our staff is our number one priority".

He said OPL staff have access to "a robust employee assistance program" if they need help after experiencing harassment or violence. The library also has a partnership with the Centretown Health Centre to assist clients who are responsible for some of the incidents. 

Clark said the library is trying to build "a relationship that would help us understand the needs of those that are causing a lot of the trouble."

The library is also trying to "find ways to curb or mitigate their behaviour so that they're able to stay and enjoy the services that we have to offer," she added.

WATCH: Working on improvements

Ottawa Public Library working with social services to curb incidents at downtown branch

2 years ago
Duration 0:47
Donna Clark, manager of branch operations, says library staff are working with social services in an effort to cut down on the number of incidents — including violence, vandalism and verbal abuse — that occur at the Main branch.

There were only three incidents in all of February 2020, compared with eight in February 2019.

But given the pandemic, Clark said it's still too early to determine if there's been any statistical improvement since the library's door policy changed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Chevalier

Enterprise Producer

Jennifer Chevalier is the senior producer of enterprise journalism at CBC Ottawa, focusing on original stories and investigative reporting. You can contact her at jennifer.chevalier@cbc.ca

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