Here is an article posted on Teen Vogue which most of my readers may find fascinating. Anything that features all of the following: POLICE OFFICERS, PUBLIC LIBRARIES, and THE HOMELESS should be of interest. https://www.teenvogue.com
Police in Libraries: What the Cop-Free Library Movement Wants
In cities like Los Angeles, activists are working to end contracts between local police forces and public libraries.
One rainy afternoon a few years ago, Theo Henderson walked into the public library, his pants damp. It had been raining in Los Angeles for the past several days, and, because he lived outside, it had been hard to sleep through the night. A former English teacher, he loved Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and William Shakespeare as well as young-adult novels and comics. Over the past eight years of living outside, Henderson, the host of the podcast We the Unhoused, had visited different libraries across the city — in South L.A., Koreatown, Chinatown, and the central branch downtown. He looked for spaces where he would not easily attract library security. On that particular day, he recalled to Teen Vogue, the police found him sleeping in the library and asked him to leave.
Libraries are among the few public spaces still available for people like Henderson to access basic resources. Following the Great Recession, California saw significant cuts in public programs like health care, education, and child and elder care. With unemployment and houselessness skyrocketing, California leads the nation in its number of unhoused residents. Given the dearth of viable long- and short-term housing, and with the streets heavily policed, libraries have in many ways become de-facto shelters where the unhoused can access electricity, and wash and rest in relative quiet.
Yet the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) system’s budget has disproportionately prioritized policing since City Librarian John Szabo was appointed in 2012 — an imbalance that gained attention from abolitionist organizers in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings. Led by the writer Elaine Kahn, alongside cultural worker Justine Suzanne Jones and library researcher Megan Riley, Safe LAPL wanted to see how much of the library spending was being funneled toward the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). What they found, in pouring over city documents, shocked them: the library’s security budget grew from $1.1 million in 2013 to a proposed $10.4 million — 5% of the total library budget — in 2020. Austin Public Library is allocating $1.9 million in 2021, or about 3.2% of its budget, while Denver Public Library allocated $26,382 to security in 2019, around .5% of its budget. So while L.A. taxpayer money was being spent on books and library resources, a generous amount of the operating budget was also going towards staffing facilities with police officers and security officers under contracts managed by the LAPD.
Szabo has not publicly provided a justification for the dramatic increase. LAPL’s press office did not respond to Teen Vogue’s request for clarification.
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Angelenos like Henderson believe library policing is just another way to criminalize the unhoused for simply existing. Last summer, Safe LAPL circulated an open letter and petition calling for the termination of the library system’s relationship with LAPD. The Board of Library Commissioners immediately agreed to transfer $2 million from traditional security measures like policing and into a “reimagining safety” program. After continued pressure, with organizers gathering thousands of signatures and offering hours of testimony, the Board agreed to decrease the FY 2021-22 budget by an additional $2.5 million, for a total of $4.5 million to date.
Cop-free library movements in St. Louis, New York City, and at Ivy League University libraries are similarly calling for police divestment. Libraries for All STL activists pressured the St. Louis County Library to terminate its contract with Hudson Security Services, a private contractor. The group also succeeded in securing full divestment from police and security forces at one particular branch, and a commitment to contract social workers to work within the system. Libraries in Denver, San Francisco, and Dallas employ social workers who connect patrons with services and help handle crises. The effort mirrors a larger citywide effort in Denver to replace police with social workers in “nonviolent” situations. Replacing police with social service workers would follow a larger trend in L.A. too: Following the George Floyd protests, Los Angeles City Council members called for a new emergency-response model that would provide aid for people facing crises, rather than enlisting armed LAPD officers. The city cut LAPD’s $1.8 billion budget by $150 million.WATCHMastering the Classic Red Lip
These kinds of moves are overdue. Though the public library, in the popular imagination, is upheld as a place of equal opportunity and freedom, the LAPL budget reveals that it is also a site of increasing policing and surveillance, which particularly affects Black and brown communities. As it turns out, the American library has actually long been an institution of racial exclusion and oppression. The first libraries were financed by, and only served, wealthy white men, while most Southern states barred Black people from learning how to read. During the civil rights era, “libraries were often the staging areas of enormous social change,” according to a 2004 American Libraries article by Maurice Wheeler and Debbie Johnson-Houston. “African Americans were beaten, arrested, and often lost their jobs for attempting to register for library cards.” Even after Brown v. Louisiana ruled that public facilities must be regulated in a “reasonably nondiscriminatory manner,” some white librarians, rather than provide services to Black people, would close the library or make it unwelcome by removing all furniture from the space.
Superficially, it could be a sign of progress, then, that armed LAPD officers joined a city councilmember to distribute library cards on the streets of L.A. in August. The library-card publicity stunt symbolizes how the library has become a welcome space for “community policing,” a form of policing that functions to legitimize the omnipresence of law enforcement, win the cooperation of community leaders, and gather intel about neighborhoods while improving a department’s image. It also serves as a recruitment tool, according to Police Chief magazine. Community policing, then, is antithetical to movements aiming to defund and abolish policing. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, at least five library branches — all of which are in minority neighborhoods — had hosted weekly “read alongs,” where armed LAPD officers read books to children.
Community policing efforts may promote collaborations between law enforcement and community members, but they can end up criminalizing the vulnerable, like Henderson. Though the LAPL’s mission statement claims to serve a diverse population, the library’s code of conduct — which prohibits eating, sleeping, bathing, monopolizing furniture and outlets, and “entering the library with hygiene conditions” — singles out the unhoused, who are disproportionately Black, and, according to Henderson, frequently struggle with mental health issues and substance-use disorders that library staff are ill-equipped to address. Police sometimes work with librarians to expel the “disorderly” from the library. A majority of logged incidents in the LAPL online reporting system were nonviolent; during 2018 and 2019, “disorderly conduct” or “public nuisance” represented more than half. “They don’t really conceptualize that I could be part of the community. So whether police come, [police officers, librarians, and patrons,] they look in or insinuate that I’m a problem or a danger,” said Henderson. “They want to be safe from us, but they don’t want us to be safe from them.”
Some proponents of library policing argue that librarians aren’t equipped to handle other difficult disruptions, like the dozens of assaults and “criminal threats” logged by LAPL’s reporting system. “Unfortunately, the LAPD is sometimes a necessary evil,” said Lisa, a librarian in the L.A. area, during a library commissioner Zoom meeting in November. “For some people who actually work in these branches that are predominantly women, some of the issues that we deal with, we do need LAPD, maybe not in the numbers and maybe not in the force that there are, maybe not at the budget that it is. But it is necessary.” With the disintegration of the social safety net, librarians are often called upon to respond to crises for which they have little professional training — becoming, in effect, de facto social workers.
In an ideal world, abolitionists argue, libraries would be supported by specialists in de-escalation and trauma-informed care, leaving librarians to their jobs. Organizers from Safe LAPL hope to combat the deeply ingrained idea that policing, rather than care, makes the world safer. “When you choose as a culture, as a city, to eliminate resources that support life,” Kahn said, “and instead advance and expand the grip of those that inhibit life, outcomes are dramatically worse.”
After the success in reducing the police budget, Kahn is “cautiously hopeful,” but fears that if alternative safety measures are not given adequate resources, their failure will only result in a return to policing. “Culturally, we’re in a moment of forced reflection in terms of how our public spaces are being managed, because they aren’t really accessible right now,” she said. “This pandemic is awful. But we have a rare moment where we actually can take some time to contest prevailing conditions, and with intention, redetermine how we would like to structure our public life going forward.”
Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: How Your Computer Reinforces Systemic Racism