Security officer Mike Vascik patrols the Main Library, which has the most patrons and the greatest number of disturbances in the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library system.
Rob Ellis spends a lot of time at Toledo’s Main Library downtown.
Most of the time, it’s quiet, with only the sounds of people whispering, the clacking of fingers on computer keyboards, and the occasional echoing sound of sneezing.
Other times, there is the sound of violence, people shouting vulgarities, mentally ill people shouting, and even patrons arguing with security guards about drinking in the building or having sex in the restrooms.
“You are going to get that anywhere,” Mr. Ellis, a library patron, said last week while meeting his two sons downtown to play a board game.
“It’s just a sad fact that nowhere is totally safe nowadays,” he said. “They are shooting in schools, so libraries wouldn’t be any safer.”
A review of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library’s security reports from 2012 through the end of last year detailed nearly 1,000 incidents a year, including criminal activity, theft, vandalism, disturbances, and sexual misconduct inside the county’s public libraries.
The Main Library downtown has the highest patron traffic and the greatest number of disturbances in which security guards and city police had to intervene. The majority of incidents at the libraries are benign, but even in the system’s 19 buildings, which are designated safe for children, reports were made of people inappropriately touching children, fighting, and using drugs.
One week after The Blade requested the last three years of library security reports, Library Director Clyde Scoles addressed the issue to the system’s board of trustees and released a public statement.
“We have a code of conduct and policies that we follow as best as we can,” Mr. Scoles told his board. “It’s certainly a bumpy road sometimes, but with security issues, we address them in a good and forceful way.”
A serious matter
He said public libraries are generally considered safe places for residents to visit, gather, learn, and explore, but they are not immune to crime.
Some of the reports “are terrible,” Mr. Scoles acknowledged to The Blade.
A man sleeps at the Main Library, an activity that’s not allowed, library officials say. Yet libraries nationwide often become de facto daytime shelters for the homeless.
“When you look at those incident [reports] — and I look at every one — some are quite serious,” he said. “There are no other institutions in the area that see the numbers of visitors that we do. ... Other libraries have very serious issues as well, so it’s not unique to Toledo.”
On Nov. 13, 2013, a boy reported that he was attacked in a first-floor restroom of the Main Library — close to the security desk.
Security labeled the incident “sexual activity.”
The boy told a security guard that a man in the stall next to him “began making hand gestures underneath the stall wall ... motioning for [him] to come toward him,” the report stated. “[The suspect] grabbed his right leg after the hand motion. [The boy] stated that he [the suspect] looked into a hole in the stall wall ... then stuck his finger into the hole and began moving it back and forth in a sexual nature.”
The suspect was apprehended, said Jeff Sabo, head of security for the library system, but he could not offer more details.
A September, 2014, a criminal damaging report at the Birmingham branch also contained information suggesting another suspect had accosted children. The report said a man plugged up a drain with paper towels, turned on the water, and left the library.
“Since coming back to the library he’s been sent home for punching kids, he has also been asked to leave for touching kids inappropriately,” the report said. Toledo police were called.
The library system did not have any other reports detailing that the man, a known patron, had touched children inappropriately.
Another report from the same month at the same library branch said a different suspect had been suspended from using the library for “inappropriately touching young girls” in the building. The library staff called police, who took the victim’s statement and left to find the suspect, the report said.
A March 8, 2014, report said a teenage girl reported that she had been sexually assaulted by a teenage boy at the Main Library. Mr. Sabo said the male suspect was arrested by Toledo police officers, but the sexual activity was eventually ruled consensual.
Sex sometimes happens in the libraries — usually in the restrooms. Sexual activities were discovered 11 times in 2012; eight in 2013, and five last year.
Security officer Mike Vascik watches the security camera feeds at the Main Library for suspicious activity, including damaging library property, arguments and disruptive behavior, and even sexual activity.
For example, a male and female — both juveniles — were caught having sex in a third-floor women’s restroom at the downtown location in January, 2014.
In early 2013, an undated report said two men entered a restroom stall together at the Main Library — the restroom adjacent to the security desk — presumably for sex.
Sometimes, officers arrive before or after the sexual activity is complete and the incident could be labeled “suspicious activity.”
That happened on Feb. 10, 2014, at the Main Library, where a woman entered a third-floor men’s restroom with a man. Both patrons told the officers that they hadn’t engaged in any inappropriate behavior.
A security guard spotted a male and female patron “becoming intimate” near the restrooms and intercepted the couple just as they were entering a restroom together. They were banned from the library for a day.
Like libraries across the nation, the Toledo-Lucas County system has become a de facto daytime hangout for homeless people. Often, staffers said, homeless people are like other patrons. But sometimes homeless people with mental illnesses or substance-abuse issues cause disruptions and even become violent.
In February, 2014, a homeless man was sleeping at the downtown library in an electric wheelchair, which is not permitted.
“I told him that sleeping in the library was against the policy and that I can ban him from the library for the day for doing so,” a security guard stated in a report. “[He] then said, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever’ and waved me away with his hand. I asked if he understood what I was telling him, and he then became aggressive and told me to go away and that he would do whatever he wanted.”
The situation escalated with the man yelling obscenities as he was being escorted out of the library.
Rob Ellis, standing, visits with, from left, Randall Ciski, 17, Paul Ellis, 17, David Ellis, 14, and Elijah Lawrence, 19, at the Main Library downtown. Mr. Ellis says it’s a sad fact that libraries and schools are no longer places in which you can feel totally safe.
James Barker is homeless, an ex-convict, a registered sex offender, and a frequent library patron.
He has been homeless since 2006 and stays at the Cherry Street Mission, like many homeless people who spend their days at the the Main Library — especially during cold weather.
“A lot of homeless people come here to stay out of the cold, read magazines, or just have a place to be,” said Barker, who was convicted of attempted rape and spent 15 years in prison.
“I know a couple of people from the mission who are dangerous, and I have seen them go off on the staff,” he said. “I have seen police arrest people in the library or they pass out in the stalls on the toilets, or smoke drugs in the bathroom, but I’ve never seen anyone shoot up in there.”
Library and law enforcement officials said sex offenders such as Barker have as much right to use a library as any patron.
Lucas County sheriff’s Detective Patrick LaPlante said there are no restrictions against sex offenders in any part of the library.
“[The security] is aware, especially in the Main Library with a lot of the vagrants and guys from the Cherry Street Mission,” Detective LaPlante said. “They keep an eye on everyone who uses the computers, but you can’t violate their freedoms.”
‘Code of conduct’
Mr. Sabo said crime and “code of conduct violations” — such as viewing pornography — are challenges for library security.
The system has 22 armed security officers and eight Toledo police and Lucas County sheriff’s deputies who work off-duty for the Main Library and its branches.
Homeless advocate Ken Leslie, who founded Toledo’s annual Tent City event for the homeless, acknowledged that libraries nationwide have been hit with the challenge of functioning almost like social service agencies for homeless men and women during the day when shelters do not allow people inside.
“The majority of the [homeless] people I know who go down there use the computer to look for jobs,” Mr. Leslie said. “Does riffraff come around? Yes, and do people want to put the blame on the unhoused? Sure. Are there unhoused mentally ill people causing trouble? Yes.”
Library staff members often deal with mentally disturbed patrons, especially at the downtown location where 74 cases of disruptive behavior and harassment against staff members and patrons were reported in 2014.
Security officers reported a teenager on Jan. 13 making statements about the library before he “punched and knocked down a computer monitor, struck picture books from the new books display area, and knocked down books from a display about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Librarians need to police the use of public computers because some patrons access pornography online. Doing so can result in a one-week ban from the library.
“He is part of the big group that has been hanging out in Children’s Library for the last few weeks,” the report said.
Staff members deal with a lot of harassment. Some is subtle, while some is overt.
A librarian in September, 2014, reported a regular patron had made comments about her hair and tried to touch her. The following month, he made more comments to her. This time it was about being the head of her fan club.
“He keep yelling 69, 69, 69 at me because his birthday is 1969, but he was referencing the sexual act,” the female librarian said in her report. “After using the computer he wouldn’t leave and kept asking for my number and saying he will miss me.”
Theft is also a big problem. Usually compact discs and movies disappear from the libraries. Library records showed 645 books, movies, and CDs stolen last year alone, costing taxpayers nearly $14,000. Sometimes larger items are taken.
On Jan. 13, 2014, a patron was pushing someone in a library-owned wheelchair downtown, went out the front doors, and put the wheelchair in the trunk of a vehicle and drove off.
The suspect returned it the following day and was banned for at least a week.
A snowblower was stolen in February from a shed at the Kent Branch Library. Video footage showed two people taking the equipment, but they could not be identified.
Four days later, two men broke into the same shed and stole a snowblower that had been purchased to replace the stolen one. Later that month, security footage showed two people tried again to break into the shed, but they could not get in.
Porn and computers
Policing computer usage in libraries also has become a regular duty for librarians, Mr. Sabo said.
Looking at pornography on a library computer can result in a one-week ban, while engaging in sexual activity could mean a one-year ban. In March, a man at the downtown library was eligible to be slapped with both violations for masturbating at a computer station.
“A couple of minutes into my observations, I noticed [the man] watching a video of a partially clothed female being raped by a male with a gun,” a report said, and the man began masturbating through his pants. He ultimately apologized, acknowledged he should not have done that in a public place, and left quietly.
When a patron is found viewing pornography, he or she usually leaves the building quietly.
But on June 28, a man viewing pornography at the downtown library refused to leave when confronted by library security.
“When I told him he has to leave he stood up and walked within inches of me, threatening, ‘If he ever sees me on the street he will put me down’ and that ‘He doesn’t care what badge I have or if we call the police.’ ” He was eventually escorted out by two security guards.
After a patron is banned, returning to the library can get him or her slapped with a criminal trespassing charge. The libraries deal with a lot of repeat offenders.
Michael Vitek of West Toledo was arrested at the downtown library in July for criminal trespassing, criminal damaging, disorderly conduct while intoxicated, and menacing.
The library’s report and Toledo Municipal Court records indicated that he threatened a security guard. Mr. Vitek was sentenced to 30 days in the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio for criminal damaging, but the other charges were dismissed.
Security guards spend a fair amount of time policing the branches for intoxicated people. Some are cooperative, while others can get verbally or even physical abusive. Fights also break out at the libraries, usually among younger patrons, according to reports.
Library staff also deal with weapons in the buildings. Security guards at the Main Library in January, 2014, argued with a man carrying a firearm on his belt claiming to be a sheriff’s deputy. He became belligerent and refused to show identification. Security guards eventually lost sight of the man.
Along with problems caused by some patrons, the library is fighting to keep bedbugs out of its locations.
“We did have one branch, Lagrange, that had a bedbug problem,” Mr. Scoles said. “We also had some in a nonpublic area downtown.”
A September, 2014, report stated there were bed bugs at the front desk at the Main Library in early July and a second time in August.
“That is a problem they don’t teach you about in library school,” Mr. Scoles said.