Libraries are built for reading and research, and librarians are trained to help patrons find what they need. But staffers at San Diego city libraries are also coping with threats to their safety and occasional violence, according to court records and interviews.
At least 16 city library department employees have asked judges for protection from unruly patrons, according to documents obtained in response to a public records request filed by NBC 7 Investigates.
“We have at least two cases where actual assaults have happened,” said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, which represents city library workers. “There’s crime in the bathrooms. There’s prostitution, drug dealing, drug taking, and violence. These are things that librarians didn’t sign up for.”
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Examples of the problem include a March, 2018 request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against a 23-year-old male patron who allegedly punched a female librarian in the jaw, which cut the inside of her cheek. In that case, the city attorney’s office sought protection for five library staffers at both the North Park and University Heights branches, which were frequented by that suspect.
In March, 2019, a patron at the San Ysidro branch allegedly threatened to “cut into pieces” two staffers using an “unspecified weapon,” according to court documents.
And in September, two employees at the Pacific Beach branch sought a restraining order against a 41-year-old female patron who allegedly "escalated her threatening and harassing behavior" after staff asked her to stop intimidating them.
When a Superior Court judge approves those requests for a TRO, the aggressors are subject to arrest if they further “harass, threaten, stalk or physically attack” the protected library staffers.
Targets of the TROs must also stay at least 100 yards away from the librarians, their workplace, homes, and vehicles.
“But a restraining order only works if the person who's restrained follows the restraining order,” said Zucchet. “So there's still a lot of fear among librarians as to how to deal with these situations."
City Librarian Misty Jones told NBC 7 Investigates her department is taking forceful and effective action to prevent threats and violence.
“Our number one priority is the safety and security of our staff and patrons,” Jones said.
She said there are eight security guards on duty 24 hours per day at the downtown Central Library. Security guards are also stationed during operating hours at 23 of the city’s 36 branch libraries.
The map below shows city branches staffed with security guards.
The library department budgeted $1.5 million for armed and specially-trained security for the current fiscal year.
Jones also said the police department offers personal safety training and instruction on “verbal escalation” techniques for library staff. Library employees are also trained in “mental health first-aid” to help them understand and safely interact with disruptive, potentially violent patrons.
“Illegal activity and threats of violence are never tolerated and result in (the patron’s) immediate suspension,” Jones said.