Despite investment, security remains challenge at San Francisco Public Library

Drug-dealing and smoking on the patio, verbal abuse over computers, public drunkenness and indecent exposure? Shhh, it's the library.

Library workers may once have been tasked solely with helping patrons, pulling reference materials and shelving books. But the employees and security team at San Francisco's 28 library branches are also forced to handle a multitude of public safety and mental health issues.

During May, the most recent month for which data were available, some 47 separate incidents of bad behavior were reported at the system's branches, San Francisco Public Library spokeswoman Michelle Jeffers said. The incidents included an intoxicated patron who was drinking alcohol and refused to leave a library, three people caught sleeping, one person who verbally abused library employees and another who exposed himself outside a library. Still, Jeffers said, the overall incident count was small for facilities that served 421,738 people during that month.

Keeping up with a user population that includes more than a few homeless or mentally ill people is a monumental challenge the libraries have been trying to solve for years. But some observers believe more work is still needed.

The library system began “professionalizing” its security staff in 2006 when it brought in Tenderloin Police Station Sgt. Patrick Kwan. Library management also began helping patrons connect to social services.

“It's been maybe seven years that we decided that we really needed a concerted effort to address public safety,” City Librarian Luis Herrera said.

The library pays the Police Department for Kwan's services as well as two additional uniformed officers who patrol the Civic Center area directly outside the Main Library, Herrera said.

“It's been an amazing arrangement,” Herrera said of Kwan's presence.

The officer is embedded in day-to-day activities at the library, Facilities Director Roberto Lombardi noted. “He's been spectacularly available,” Lombardi said.

The Main Library alone has more than 5 million visitors annually, officials note. Lombardi said the library system employs 14 security guards to patrol all 28 branches, although two of those positions are part time and four more are temporary workers.

Library administrators and employees say more guards are necessary to provide a satisfactory level of security. But some library employees believe the use of temporary guards with less experience or skin in the game is compromising safety.

Library officials said the use of temporary and part-time workers allows them the flexibility to flesh out their professionalized security force, while at the same time echoing labor's concern that the Department of Human Resources is not hiring full-time workers citywide at a fast enough pace.

One library employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the book return box on Larkin Street at the main branch couldn't be serviced because of the harassment employees received from some people hanging around outside. The employee said temporary security workers don't want to endanger themselves in the line of duty for low pay and no benefits.

Ed Kinchley, a representative of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, said the union has filed a grievance about the library not filling the temporary security positions with full-timers. He said according to the labor contract, the temps have been there longer than agreed upon.

Herrera said the library wants to hire permanent security workers.

“We definitely don't have the full complement,” he said.

Local 1021's Kinchley agreed, accusing the Department of Human Resources of dragging its feet.

But Human Resources Department spokeswoman Susan Gard said the library system has made no requests to fill these positions with permanent employees. She also said it is management's responsibility to address employee health and safety concerns.

Helping patrons secure access to a variety of social services is another odd responsibility that often falls to library workers. In 2009, the library brought on a full-time social worker through a partnership with the Department of Public Health.

“Our librarians aren't social workers,” Herrera said.

Leah Esguerra is stationed at the main branch and helps connect patrons in need with appropriate city services. Esguerra heads the Health and Safety Associates team, many of whom were formerly homeless themselves.

Members engage patrons on the spot, sometimes disrupting inappropriate behavior, Jeffers said. The social worker also can link a person with mental health services or even assess a patron for involuntary hospitalization if necessary.

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