Edmonton Public Library sees significant increase in security incidents

A security guard stands inside the Millennium Library in downtown Winnipeg. Edmonton's downtown public library saw an increase in security incidents in 2022, according to a recent report. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC - image credit)
A security guard stands inside the Millennium Library in downtown Winnipeg. Edmonton's downtown public library saw an increase in security incidents in 2022, according to a recent report. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton librarians saw a significant increase in distressed customers last year, according to a recent report on security trends and costs.

The preliminary report, which Edmonton Public Library quickly prepared for Edmonton city council during budget deliberations last month, said 2,770 security incidents had occurred at public library branches from the beginning of 2022 until Nov. 27.

Because pandemic-related closures occurred in the previous two years, EPL used 2019 as a comparator. That year, the library saw 215 fewer security incidents.

The number of "customer distress" incidents, which include opioid poisonings and mental distress, increased 69 per cent from 340 in 2019 to 573 by the end of November 2022.

Incidents involving drugs or alcohol were down by 11 per cent and those involving harassment had decreased by 20 per cent during the same time period.

Last year also saw 77 opioid poisonings occur in public library branches. Since EPL only started tracking that statistic in the fall of 2021, year-to-year comparisons are not yet available.

Only a very small fraction of EPL visits became security incidents, the report notes.

Some branches see a lot more of them than others.

More than half of the security incidents logged last year occurred at the downtown Stanley A. Milner branch, followed by the Highlands, Strathcona, Abbotsfield and Sprucewood locations.

Security incidents and incident rates at Edmonton public library branches in 2022

In an interview on Tuesday, Pilar Martinez,  EPL chief executive officer, said the number of security incidents this year is the highest it has been during the library's history of tracking them.

"It's really a symptom of what we're seeing in our society overall, across North America and in Edmonton, and particularly in the downtown core," she said, citing mental health, addiction and homelessness as contributing factors to the increase.

Lanny Chudyk, president of Civic Service Union 52, said over the past year, the library did "a much better job" in recognizing social disorder issues in the workplace.

"But at the end of the day, my members are still, in a way, being expected to be security staff or first responders, which is really not what they signed on for," he said.

$1.4M in security, social disorder costs

According to the report, EPL incurred an estimated $1.4 million in costs related to social disorder, incident management and security.

The library was anticipating about $733,000 in security costs last year, with more than half of that money going to security at the Milner branch.

The report also said EPL worked with the city to add washroom attendants to two branches and pilot an opioid overdose response team at the Milner branch for 28 hours a week. Thanks to city grants, both initiatives were cost-neutral for the library.

Martinez said she does not believe security costs have increased over the years and that security staff do not spend all of their time dealing with incidents — they also greet people at the doors and monitor branches.

Ward papastew Coun. Michael Janz, who requested the security data from EPL, posted on Twitter on Monday that the provincial government has failed to address mental health, addiction and homelessness.

NDP MLA David Shepherd, whose riding includes downtown Edmonton, retweeted the city councillor.

"They are having to spend significant dollars to support and help individuals, who struggle with substance use, who are dealing with mental health challenges, because of a lack of provincial supports,"  he said during a news conference on Tuesday.

Shepherd said the province should be investing in housing, day shelters and the organizations that help people move toward recovery and stability.

Chudyk said he agreed with many of Coun. Janz's comments, but the city also has a responsibility to ensure a safe workplace. Mayor Amarjeet Sohi's chief of staff said he was not available to comment on this story.

Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC
Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC

In a statement, Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the minister of mental health and addiction, Nicholas Milliken, said the government formed a task force recently to increase access to addiction and homelessness services.

"It's rather ironic that Councillor Janz is criticizing the province, given his and Mayor Sohi's refusal to allow the Edmonton city manager and fire chief to participate in the provincial task force," Aitchison said.

He said over the next two years, the government is spending $82 million in Edmonton, including more than $63 million for addiction and mental health services and $19 million for shelter spaces and other housing measures.

Same challenges at other libraries

Other urban libraries in Canada and the U.S. are also grappling with security issues and opioid poisonings, Martinez said.

She is chairing a Canadian Urban Libraries Council working group on safety on security, which has a meeting scheduled for Thursday. Representatives from large libraries across North America also discussed the issue at a November meeting of the Urban Libraries Council.

"I don't think this is part of the library's mandate, to be completely honest," Martinez said.

Still, she said complex social problems require complex solutions and libraries want to play a role.

"We need to come up with better solutions and I think we will," she said.