Hawaii’s 51-branch public library system is looking to beef up security following a rough patch of vandalism and violent confrontations including an attempted kidnapping.
The Hawaii State Public Library System wants to hire more security guards and install security cameras to help safeguard at least 11 branches identified as having endured the worst of the incidents.
State Librarian Stacey Aldrich said a rise in violent and destructive activity was seen during the pandemic both inside and outside libraries, prompting the need to better protect state property, patrons and staff.
Although the state Board of Education approved Aldrich’s request for an additional $1 million for library security last month, the proposal still needs the approval of Gov. David Ige and the state Legislature.
“The staff has faced verbal abuse, knives pulled out on security guards. There’s been spitting, throwing, destruction of library laptops, physical attacks on staff as they tried to leave work,” Aldrich told the board.
The outside of buildings has also become a target. In some locations, she said, library staff have arrived to work only to find human waste smeared on doors, broken windows and garbage strewn about, she said.
Staff members have had their cars scratched with keys and tires slashed, while there have been stabbings after hours in parking lots. There was also an attempted kidnapping that occurred in the parking lot at the Kailua-Kona branch, an apparent domestic incident.
“Each time we call the police, they ask if we have (security) cameras (to help identify suspects),” Aldrich said. “We don’t have cameras at most of the libraries.”
In an interview, Mallory Fujitani, special assistant in the Office of the State Librarian, said the incidents have become a pressing issue for the library system over the past couple of years.
“The pandemic seems to have brought out the worst in some people,” she said.
In addition, some homeless people have taken to spending nights on library grounds and that can result in trash being left behind and other problems.
Another recent source of agitation was the governor’s order in September requiring all visitors to state facilities, including state libraries, to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results within 72 hours before entering.
Enforcing the mandate has generated ill feelings among some patrons who disagree with the rule, leading to loud confrontations in some cases, Fujitani said.
Eleven libraries were identified as having priority for installation of exterior security camera systems, estimated to cost a total of $800,000.
They are the Hawaii State Library in Honolulu, branches in Ewa Beach, Kapolei, Wahiawa, Liliha, McCully, Waikiki and the Library for the Blind and Print Disabled (which are next to each other), Kahului, Hilo and Kailua-Kona.
Fujitani said the list of vulnerable libraries is based on vandalism and other crime, and was drawn up with recommendations of law enforcement.
As for security guards, some $200,000 will help the library system engage a new security company having personnel with a higher level of training. The money would raise the current security-guard budget to $2 million.
The current contractor, Aldrich said, does not provide the appropriate staffing for the kind of security work and public interaction required at a library.
While 80% of the libraries are covered by the security contract, there have been 123 instances over the past six months when the current security agency was unable to provide staffing, she said.
“We must invest in our security guards to ensure they have the training and skills to handle critical situations, and make sure we have guards at the libraries that are most in need,” Aldrich wrote in a report the BOE.
During the meeting, Board Chairwoman Catherine Payne said what’s happening at the libraries is disturbing.
“It’s so unlike what we believe about ourselves in Hawaii,” she said.
Payne pointed out that the libraries have taken on a larger role during the pandemic as a resource for families of children who are being schooled at home.
She also noted that the libraries have spread the aloha during the pandemic by volunteering to help the Department of Labor field unemployment calls and have extended Wi-Fi into parking areas so that people don’t have to get out of their cars to use it.
“But the fact that any of these things are happening to your staff in your libraries is just heartbreaking,” she told Aldrich.
Board member Bruce Voss said libraries need to continue to be the sanctuaries they have always been.
“It just makes me mad — damn mad,” he said. “What is wrong with these people? But regardless, these people need to be caught, stopped and, as applicable, punished and deterred from doing this.”
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