Safety, Security Improvements Proposed At Hartford Public Library
By TINA A. BROWN And STEVEN GOODE | Courant Staff Writers
May 22, 2008
Chief Librarian Louise Blalock told employees she is prepared to take several steps to improve safety and security at the Hartford Public Library's main branch, including instituting mandatory staff training, developing a workplace safety and security plan and inviting regular police patrols.
Blalock, whose leadership has been under fire since a Courant investigation brought to light a laundry list of ongoing safety and security problems inside the library, met with employees for about an hour Wednesday morning.
"We are very concerned about [staff] safety and their concerns," Blalock said in a telephone interview later in the afternoon.
"We are feeling the fallout of the Courant story."
Through internal incident reports and interviews with employees, The Courant revealed a pattern of bad behavior in the glass-enclosed flagship library, including alcohol and drug use, sexual encounters in bathrooms, the theft of library materials — made easier by the absence of theft detection — and incidents of threatening or violent behavior. Those problems, staff members said, worsened since the completion of the $42 million renovation and expansion late last year.
Blalock said that she met with about 60 library staff members in the Hartford History Center on the third floor to discuss ways to improve safety and security.
Her proposals include appointing a safety and security task force made up of staff and library board members; holding mandatory two-day training sessions for employees to learn how to handle disruptive and potentially dangerous behavior in the workplace; hiring a library security expert to assist in developing an overall plan; and inviting a police officer assigned to city hall next door to include the library in his rounds.
Blalock has been reluctant to call police, preferring to rely on librarians and security staff to handle disruptive patrons and defuse volatile situations. She said the changes she proposes do not reflect badly on her chief of security, Arvid Leftwich.
The training workshops are scheduled for mid-July. "It's important to give people the tools they need," she said.
Once all members of the newly created safety and security task force are appointed, Blalock will direct that it "come up with a plan on safety for the library," she said.
Blalock characterized the tone of the meeting as "quite positive" and said she bonded with the staff over their concerns about the online comments board at courant.com that allows people to anonymously post remarks in response to the story.
"I did talk with staff about the deeply distressing comments, some of which had racist overtones and personal attacks. I find it deplorable."
She said she gives as much credence to the anonymous bloggers as she does when she receives a complaint that is unsigned.
"I don't read it," Blalock said.
David Ionno, vice president of AFSCME Local 1716, the librarians' union, said the staff favored reinstating the long dormant safety committee, creating an internal blog where employees and administrators could share ideas and concerns and having a police officer come through the library on a regular basis.
"All of us are on the same page," he said after the morning meeting.
Ionno said the staff also made it clear that they intended to call 911, if necessary, to deal with safety and security problems, and requested that — because Blalock opposes posting library rules around the building — they be allowed to create a document in case they need it when someone gets out of line.
"We'd like something in writing that we can give to [customers] so they know what the rules are," Ionno said.
Ionno said that he and the staff very much supported Blalock's position on the abusive online postings.
"A lot of the staff are Hartford residents, and they were upset about comments about the city," he said.
But Ionno was disheartened by Blalock's response to a request from a staff member to hire more security staff.
"She said, 'Where would you like me to cut?'" Ionno said.
The Hartford Public Library's budget, after city action this week, will remain at level funding, or $8.4 million, for the main library and its nine branches.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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