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Ottawa Public Library seeks $3 million for security to address increase in employee assaults and incidents

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The Ottawa Public Library (OPL) wants to boost security at their branches because of an increase in dangerous incidents and assaults against staff.

The OPL board made the recommendation as part of its 2024 draft budget, citing a June 2023 report detailing an increase in the frequency and intensity of incidents in all its branches over the last five years. The board directed staff in June to bring forward the recommended cost increase for security before to the OPL budget is approved on Tuesday.

The report found that since January 2020, there have been six physical or psychological injuries to front-line library employees. Four of the incidents occurred in the first four months of 2023.

Some of the incidents against employees included threats and being spat on.

Patricia Slater, a library user, shared her concerns about harassment.

"Occasionally you'll get people who will just harass you. And it's not dangerous specifically, but you don't know if it's going to turn dangerous," she said. "Especially if you're female and you're by yourself, you never know if it’s just somebody in a bad mood or whether they're actually out to get you. You don't know. So I think a little bit of additional security is not a bad idea."

OPL wants to bring the security budget to $3 million, up from the current $560,000. The security contract will expire at the end of the year.

While most of the incidents occured downtown, they have been reported at branches across the city.

The report cites gaps in services to support housing, mental health and substance abuse disorders as the reason many are seeking respite and assistance in public spaces, with libraries being no exception.

"Public libraries serve all members of the community, including vulnerable groups and individuals with diverse needs. Incidents that occur at library locations are not unique to public libraries and must be considered in a broader social context," the report said.

"Library employees across the country are 'seeing more people with more complex needs than ever before'".

Security was introduced in 2018 to the Rideau and Main branches, where high-risk incidents occur most frequently. Staff say the branches in North Gloucester, Greenboro, Sunnyside and Rosemount branches would additionally benefit from security support, based on incident trends and feedback.

Data from the report shows the top incidents observed by staff were related to causing a disturbance, drugs and alcohol use as well as trespassing. Security guards administered Naloxone to two individuals in 2023.

The report says there were 128 incidents in 2021 and 363 in 2022.

During the first quarter of 2023, employees filed 176 incident reports, almost half the number of reported incidents in the full year of 2022. Should the trend continue, the report says, they expect the highest incident reporting of the previous five years by the end of the year.

Jules Sigler, who works downtown, suggests addressing the root cause.

"I think we should handle the real problem first—the homeless problem and the people on the streets who need help, which cause the need for greater security."

But others, like Charles Nezam, a frequent user of the Metcalfe Library, says he doesn’t see the need for more security.

"I feel safe every time I go there,” says Nezam. “I have never encountered any problems whatsoever."

Should the board approve the recommendation, OPL would award the security services contract and enter into a one-year agreement with a security provider with the option to renew for up to four consecutive years.

OPL says its approach is to engage security services that use an 'empathy-driven approach' that recognizes vulnerable populations.

--With files from CTV News Ottawa's Dave Charbonneau.

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