Crooks at Your Local Library

Public libraries have become havens for a vast assortment of people, many of whom are actual or potential criminals.

Like many examples in police work, the good people using the library need your protection from the problem people who invade the library.Like many examples in police work, the good people using the library need your protection from the problem people who invade the library.Photo: Getty Images

Let's describe a place where certain types of people go and see if you can guess where it is. This building is visited by gang members, the homeless, the mentally ill, the drug and alcohol addicted, opiate overdosers, pedophiles, gun and knife carriers, thieves, vandals and taggers, dope dealers, child pornography enthusiasts, flashers, gropers, stalkers, and domestic violence perpetrators. If you guessed the county jail you'd be wrong. It's the library, and it's actually worse than you might think.

As libraries adapt and expand their services for their communities, we see them trying to be more inclusive, open, and accepting of all kinds of citizens, many of whom have specific or special needs. This can include offering literacy programs for people who cannot read or write at a functional level; LGBTQ programs for minors and adults struggling with their sexual identities; immigration support services for undocumented people; story time for little kids, where they learn to read and love books; programs that assist the elderly with computer literacy, their taxes, or other life issues; legal aid services; teens helped with homework; family movie nights; writing and publishing workshops; and local or national author events. City and county libraries put a lot of effort and thought into how they can stay relevant by providing a living, changing space that is about more than just books and magazines.

Besides the assortment of actual and potential criminals listed at the beginning of this article, lots of normal and nice people go to the local library: kids with their parents; retired or elderly folks; K-12 and college students doing research or homework; citizens and visitors looking for help and information; teachers and their classes; and people of all ages and interests who want a quiet, safe place to read, use the Internet, watch online videos, or rent DVDs, records, and books. But like many examples in police work, the good people using the library need your protection from the problem people who invade the library.

Protection from the Problem People

Sitting in my office nearly 20 years ago, I received a call from a grant-funded state training organization that specialized in library programs. They asked, "Can you teach your workplace violence prevention workshop to people who work in libraries?" I said, "What could possibly be going on in a public library where you'd need a safety and security guy like me?" This began my education about what goes on in libraries and who causes the majority of the problems inside them.

As I taught my half-day workshop, "Library Security: Dealing With Challenging Patrons," around the country, I heard many stories from library staffers about problematic people doing scary, dangerous, violent, stupid, and irritating things, putting the employees and other normal patrons at risk. As you might expect, I always asked about the police response to their libraries for crimes in progress, but also about their experience getting extra patrols. The answers I got back ranged along a spectrum of service and support from, "The police or sheriff's department come if we call them using 911, but they never just come by to make sure we're safe" to "The police or sheriff's department come by on a regular basis. They know us, we know them, they know the problem patrons here, and they help keep us safe."

So in the spirit of making more work for yourself and your beat partners, if you have a library branch in your service area, add it to your list of stops. In my Perfect Library World, an officer or a deputy would visit the library on an irregular basis, saying hello to the staff, greeting the nice, normal patrons, and giving the hard eye to potentially or actually problematic patrons in the building.

Make Libraries Part of Patrol

You don't have to go to your local library branch every day. Pick a few moments out of your patrol month. You could come by once a week for a quick walkthrough, or twice in one day, or three times a week. During this visit you can simply say hello to the relieved staff, check the restrooms, walk the exterior perimeter, and talk over any security or crime problems with the leadership team and/or the posted security guard, if they have one.

You'll want to say hello to normal patrons and chase out problem patrons. This could include predatory or overly aggressive homeless people; gangsters who are there to steal, vandalize, sell drugs, recruit, or intimidate others; people who are clearly under the influence and can't control their behavior; and disruptive mentally ill people. While at the library you can keep your eye on a lot of people who may have crime on their minds, and your presence there on a random, irregular, occasional basis makes it hard for them to guess when you might pop in.

As a favor to you, I have instructed my library training participants to welcome you, share relevant Security Incident Reports, and allow you to use the clean and safe staff bathroom. Consider sitting in the library at a safe table to write your reports. Use the library parking lot as a place to sit in your car and eat your lunch. Don't just wait for them to call you. In some cities, the library is near the police department and City Hall, so if this applies to you, walk across the plaza and start saying hello.

Library Employees

Library employees are well aware that members of their profession are at risk of injury and death. Within the last year, a library manager was shot and killed in the parking lot of her facility by a mentally ill homeless man in Sacramento. This perpetrator had already been kicked out of several St. Louis, MO-area libraries before he made his way west. The director of the Fort Myers Beach, FL library was stabbed to death by a mentally ill homeless man as he opened the branch one Saturday morning this past January.

Many library staffers already know how to initiate the Run-Hide-Fight protocol for active shooters or mass attackers. They've seen the related YouTube videos and been through training classes on active shooters taught by me or other officers or deputies from their communities.

A number of libraries in this country keep doses of Narcan on hand and certain staffers have been trained to administer it to suspected opiate overdosers who frequent their bathrooms, book stacks, or other hidden parts of their facilities.

Library employees try to be as inclusive, helpful, and welcoming as possible to all. If you have a library branch in your work area, get to know the staff and support their efforts to keep themselves and the normal patrons safe and secure from the abnormal patrons.

Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. His 21 books include Albrecht on Guns, Albrecht and Farrow on Guns, Patrol Cop, Contact and Cover, and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops. He can be reached at

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