Multnomah County Librarians Say They’re No Longer Willing to Work as De Facto Security Guards

Their union says the model used to staff libraries for the past two decades puts library workers squarely in the path of potential violence.

UNSAFE SPACE: Multnomah County's Central Library in downtown Portland was the site of a stabbing in March. (Roger Bong)

It was just after 6 pm on Feb. 26 when a patron at the Midland branch of the Multnomah County Library attacked two employees. The man, agitated and yelling, head-butted and punched the two staffers until a co-worker pinned him against the library’s glass doors.

“He walked toward me as I was quickly backing up, and bum-rushed and head-butted me,” one library staffer wrote in an incident report. “I felt my feet lift off the floor, and landed near a table by the display case.”

The worker suffered injuries to her collar bone, right hip and leg—and, three days later, could still not fully lift her right leg.

County officials expressed dismay. “We want to acknowledge the pain that this inflicts, and the reality that these kinds of events are happening not just in the library but in spaces across the county,” wrote Kirby McCurtis, the system’s director of location services, to library employees later that day.

The February attack at Midland, a library branch on Southeast 122nd Avenue at Morrison Street, is just one incident in a series of violent confrontations in recent months at the county’s public libraries, which often serve as a refuge for people living on Portland’s streets who are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, and the trauma of living outside.

Library workers want more than sympathy.

Their union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 88, says the model used to staff libraries for the past two decades puts library workers squarely in the path of potential violence, serving as de facto security guards for unstable patrons. And they are demanding that security duties be revised in the next contract if the library’s current security system isn’t strengthened or changed. Bargaining is ongoing.

“Library employees hold many hats—from social work to day care to security guard to resource center,” says Mecca Scott, a union representative for AFSCME Local 88, which represents more than 450 library workers across the county’s 19 branches. “Security should not be one of them.”

The county defends its current model.

McCurtis tells WW: “Replacing represented staff who currently perform [these] duties would necessitate a drastic reallocation of positions in all libraries within fixed revenue constraints.”

The dispute highlights the strain that overlapping crises of homelessness, inadequate mental health services in Oregon, drug use and the pandemic have placed on people who work in Portland’s public spaces.

Libraries see those crises show up perhaps more potently than any other public buildings. “I have to wake up every day,” said one librarian who requested anonymity, “and figure out, is this the day that someone gets stabbed, or someone gets shot?”

(Abby Gordon)

On March 16, Multnomah County chief operating officer and director of county management Serena Cruz emailed all county employees.

“As you have experienced, witnessed, or read in the news, there has been an increase in violence in our community and across the nation,” Cruz wrote. “Additionally, addiction and mental or behavioral health crises are increasingly prevalent and visible in our community, including in many of our health clinics, shelters, and libraries.”

She conceded that workplace violence at county facilities had spiked and laid out increased security measures at five buildings, including the Gladys McCoy Health Department Headquarters in Old Town and the offer of security escorts to employees when leaving certain buildings.

Cruz was referring in part to increasing violent incidents at library branches. WW obtained the incident reports for three such events from the county.

On March 5, at the Central Library in downtown Portland, a patron stabbed another patron in the library elevator with a knife that had a 4-to-6-inch blade.

Then, on March 21, a distraught man brandishing two knives threatened to harm both himself and staff as librarians hid behind a door at the Woodstock branch after clearing the library of patrons in response to the man’s meltdown.

The county acknowledged an increase in similar incidents in a recent budget document: “As our community struggles with issues related to houselessness, addiction and mental health, the library is encountering increased severity and frequency of security-related incidents.”

In response, the county beefed up security at libraries.

Currently, the library system has 14 “library safety liaisons,” or unarmed safety officers, across all libraries. Three of those were added since January in response to incidents.

In November, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office told the county that come 2022 it would no longer offer security at the Central Library downtown because the incidents were “outside the scope of the mission” of its unarmed security officers, says Chris Liedle, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

“This determination shifted away from a presence of uniformed security to that of a police response by the city of Portland,” Liedle says.

The sheriff’s office had provided security at the Central Library for over 25 years. The county scrambled to find replacements.

It settled on a contract with private security company Northwest Enforcement at the Central Library until June 1.

But AFSCME Local 88 says it’s not enough, and a search since November for a new safety and security manager for the libraries has so far failed.

Local 88 president Joslyn Baker says libraries are increasingly the place where more people find safe shelter, resources and a reprieve from severe weather. But she says the library system hasn’t adapted to the evolving responsibilities put on its workers: “The county has not recognized and moved the funding and staffing adequately to address” complicated issues, Baker says.

Librarians want an overhaul of the model that makes them the first responders to conflict.

That model, in place since 2000, requires librarians, if no manager is present, to assume some safety duties, such as issuing warnings and exclusions if someone is misbehaving in the library. Some violations are more serious, such as sexual harassment and violence. Other infractions are much more minor, including eating and sleeping. But those interactions can escalate.

During the fall, the county discussed making that role, called the “person in charge,” an opt-in model; but not enough workers were interested in volunteering, the county explained in emails shared with WW. So the mandatory assignment remained.

McCurtis tells WW that removing the safety portion of librarians’ duties would be expensive: “We wouldn’t be able to afford it. Every position costs money. If we don’t have staff being [persons in charge] then we have to hire people who can be in that role, and that’s staffing.”

The county is also looking for a self-defense course for library workers and is seeking to increase social worker hours spent in libraries across the system from 40 to 61 total per week.

Two of the leading candidates for Multnomah County chair, Commissioners Jessica Vega Pederson and Sharon Meieran, both say they would take the concerns of librarians seriously and work to negotiate a different safety model.

“The bottom line is that ‘budget constraints’ are not a sufficient reason to put library staff and/or patrons in harm’s way,” Meieran tells WW.

The librarian who spoke to WW says he’s not opposed to libraries being the place where people find refuge throughout the day.

“I’ve gotten people housing and jobs, I’ve been like a social worker as long as I’ve worked in the library,” he tells WW. “But what I can’t do is deescalate somebody who has ‘meth mites.’ That’s outside of my capacity and training and pay.”

This article was published with support from the Jackson Foundation, whose mission is: “To promote the welfare of the public of the City of Portland or the State of Oregon, or both.”

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.