Police Respond to Hundreds of Incidents at Connecticut Libraries

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Connecticut librarians can find themselves on the front lines of a community's biggest challenges. From mental illness and drug use to poverty and crime, the life of a librarian may not be as easy - or as safe - as some might think.

NBC Connecticut Investigates obtained records from police departments across the state which showed there were thousands of calls for service to local libraries over the last two years.

“It is more than just coming in and checking in and checking out a book," said Leticia Cotto, the customer experience officer at Hartford Public Library, about how times have changed. Public libraries are now the crossroads of our communities.

“We're librarians. We're not social workers," said Pat Rutkowski, who serves as director of the New Britain Public Library.

“It's a constant evolution," she added of how public libraries are changing to better serve the needs of the public.

Helen Malinka, director at the Berlin-Peck Memorial Library, echoed that sentiment. “People coming in with issues that we are not trained to handle," she said. “Homelessness, mental health issues, poverty, family issues and we can point them in directions.”

More often, librarians find themselves on the leading edge of whatever comes through the door.

“We would hope that everyone knows but we understand that a lot of people wouldn't know," said Ayanna Wright, who is the teen librarian at  Russell Library in Middletown. Wright said she does not always know all of what her workday will bring.

NBC Connecticut Investigates obtained two years of police department records from 20 different communities – big and small - all around the state. Page after page showed how often law enforcement had been called to local libraries. Thousands of police calls service were reported between January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2019.

In East Hartford in January 2018, officers said they investigated after a man was found to be looking at child pornography in the Raymond Library's teen section. In July 2018, East Hartford police responded to a call about a woman who was threatening to kill herself. The woman was transported to the hospital for treatment.

In May of 2018, police in West Hartford responded to reports of a patron who had previously threatened to “blow up” the Noah Webster Library. The male suspect was later charged with criminal trespassing.

South Windsor police responded to the public library in April 2018 to deal with a man with behavioral problems and a history of sudden violent outbursts. Police said was being aggressive and chasing people. The man was allowed to leave with a caregiver, according to documents.

In May of 2019, South Windsor police responded after it was reported that someone was stealing money and credit cards from library staff.

According to police documents, Wallingford police officers respond to the public library for a reported sexual assault in September 2019.

At Middletown's Russell Library, police responded to dozens of calls for service over the last two years, according to records obtained by NBC Connecticut Investigates.

“You can't go to school for that," said Wright. "They don't teach that.” However, Wright said she and library workers all around the state are quietly tackling whatever challenges come their way.

“If I'm not the resource, right, there is one. It's my job to figure out how we can help that person," she said.

“It's kind of psychological self-defense," said Steve Albrecht, a former San Diego police officer and author on the topic of library security. He said dealing with problem patrons is a growing part of a library employee's job.

“It's really a shift for them," said Albrecht. "It's not really about books and information and computers. It's about people.”

Thanks to funding through grants, a social worker is spending time between the public libraries in New Britain, Plainville and Berlin.

“It makes me feel good when someone is actually getting the services that they need and the help that they need," said Tara Skiparis, who said she is connecting at least two library clients per day to social services -- shelter, food stamps, substance abuse help, medical treatment, etc.

"I bring information on sexual assault, calling 211 and opioid recovery," Skiparis said.

"I love people," Wright said about why she enjoys returning to work each day. “If you know why you're coming to work, that it is a much easier pill to swallow.”

“Our doors are open to everyone so there are a lot of things that we have to deal with," said Wright.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect number of incident reports from the Middletown Police Department to libraries. The story above has been updated to reflect the accurate number.

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