Library sheds problematic image; incidents down nearly 50 percent

The San Francisco Main Branch library has dealt with a troubled reputation stemming from well-publicized incidents of violence and deplorable bathroom conditions.

In January 2014, Mayor Ed Lee called for a zero–tolerance policy targeting patrons who behave badly as he toured the facility with Police Chief Greg Suhr and top-ranking members of his administration, including his homeless czar and chief of staff.

That led to the imposition of a new patron code of conduct in October 2014 — a proposal that raised concerns among homeless advocates — and stepped up enforcement. Last year, in November and December alone, there were a total of 125 patron suspensions.

A Nov. 30 stabbing in the library’s bathroom, which sent one man to the hospital, may suggest little progress toward the mayor’s call to restore peace among the book stacks. But a new report presented Thursday to the Library Commission says library incidents — anything from sleeping to physical altercations — decreased by roughly 50 percent in fiscal year 2015, compared to the prior year.

In fiscal year 2014, there were 3,382 recorded incidents, compared to 1,694 in fiscal year 2015.

Between July and December 2015, there were 670 recorded incidents, the report said. The tally includes the branch libraries, but nearly all incidents occurred at the Main Branch. In fiscal year 2011, there were 5,282 recorded incidents.

“The knifing was really an isolated incident,” library spokeswoman Michelle Jeffers told the San Francisco Examiner. “Our numbers show our library is a safe place to be.”

Library Commissioner John Lee said, “The effort is paying off.”

Facilities director Roberto Lombardi wasn’t certain why there was a decrease, but suggested three factors: staff training, increased security and the revised code of conduct.

Library officials did not provide a requested breakdown of the incidents by press time. Suspension data also was not provided, other than for the last two months of 2015.

Suspensions were expected to increase following the mayor’s zero–tolerance call.

Library officials said there were 46 patron suspensions in November and 79 suspensions in December. For the most egregious incidents, suspensions start at one year, with repeat offenses lasting up to three years. For less severe offenses, suspensions can be a single day. Other violations are warnings. The library issued 295 suspensions in the entirety of fiscal year 2012–13, the Examiner previously reported.

“Responding to people who are creating very serious incidents, by suspending their use of the library for some period of time, certainly has an impact on it,” Jeffers said in reference to the drop in incidents.

Last year, 60 percent of the incidents were disturbances, use of obscene and threatening language or harassment. Theft comprised 15 percent of incidents, while drug use or being otherwise under the influence comprised 14 percent. Sleeping was 6 percent. Physical altercations were 5 percent of the incidents.

Measures taken to reduce unruly behavior included an audit of security by the Controller’s Office in 2014. A year later, Police Sgt. Matt Loya took over directing security operations.

The library’s effort isn’t all about punitive measures. It has a social worker program that provides services to patrons. Between July and December, 437 library patrons met with a social worker onsite.

Peter Warfield, a public library advocate, recommended an expanded and improved social worker program, calling the library’s current investment “very skimpy” when compared to the recent “policification.”

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