Evanston Public Library officials have added several new positions and stepped up staff training on de-escalating techniques for dealing with individuals experiencing crisis.

Interim Executive Library Director Heather Norborg briefed trustees on some of the moves the library has taken since a Jan. 9 incident at the main library in which an off-duty officer working as a security guard drew his gun while allegedly being beaten by a homeless man.

The fracas stirred wide discussion in the community, with some people maintaining de-escalation techniques rather than policing should be the staff’s first response in dealing with such incidents.

The Evanston Public Library’s main branch on Orrington Avenue, where a man was arrested in January after a confrontation with a library security guard. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

In her administrative services report at the April 19 meeting, Norborg told trustees that the posting of a social worker position had closed two days ago and officials are reviewing applications for the job.

“So that’s very exciting.”

At the Board’s March 15 meeting, library trustees approved a budget of $85,000 to pay for the costs of the new social worker. The library had previously contracted with Ascension Behavioral Health for the service.

After the Ascension employee in the position left to take another job in the company last December, the library and Ascension were in talks about continuing the service. In February the company informed EPL that “it is focusing on internal efforts and would not be pursuing a new contract,” Norborg reported in a memo at the March meeting.

Under the new arrangement, the social worker will serve as a full-time permanent employee of the library rather than as an employee supplied by an outside agency.

Officials also have reviewed and updated the job description for a new safety manager position, she said.

Interim Executive Library Director Heather Norborg. Credit: Screenshot of Evanston Library Board meeting

For that job, Norborg told trustees, “we researched best practices of other libraries that integrate social work and safety. So there’s less emphasis on a law enforcement background, more emphasis on the preference for social services experience, and knowledge of nonviolent crisis intervention training, trauma-informed and other more holistic approaches to behavior management.”

On the training side, the library has required members of its safety team to review multiple modules of the Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness, a book that emphasizes de-escalation training for librarians who interact with individuals experiencing homelessness. 

In addition, she told trustees that next week’s staff day would include elements that stress emergency procedures and preparedness.

New focus showing results

Norborg said she’s also working with Connections for the Homeless, the Evanston homeless advocacy  group, to provide in-person training on de-escalation techniques, and issues specific to working with people experiencing trauma.

“Our safety team and the rest of our staff are working diligently to provide the best service possible to our patrons, including those who are struggling,” she told the trustees.

In the past few months, “we have had more than a few occurrences when patrons have needed assistance including medical assistance, or needed positive redirection when being asked to comply with our guidelines of acceptable use,” said Norborg, who was picked by the board last June to serve as interim executive director. “And I’ve personally witnessed multiple instances of staff successfully interacting with patrons who are struggling, or successfully enforcing a rule in a calm and courteous manner. So I just wanted to let you know that these trainings are ongoing, continually being improved and we’re working hard to to really get behind that.”

More ‘intentional’ approach

In discussion later in the meeting, trustee Russ Shurbet said he would like to see the board “be more intentional,” moving away from involving policing in how the library deals with disruptions. 

“I’m not an expert in this, ” he said, “but there are libraries that are really moving forward on this path and I think we can learn more.”

After the altercation in January, he said, he asked Norborg what policy the library had to deal with such situations and was told there was no explicit policy to follow. 

He acknowledged that Norborg had touched on areas he had written down to raise as concerns at the meeting. Still, “I think our current process plans are in need of update and expansion in scope.”

He pointed to Arizona and California, as well as neighboring Oak Park as leading the trend of integrating equity in restorative justice practices.

“And we have organizations in our own community with a deep understanding of different options institutions can utilize,” he maintained.

“I think sadly, in our society, we push certain groups, individuals, to the margin, simply because they don’t fit society’s narrow definitions of what we currently consider as normal. And that narrative of narrowness forces these individuals to literally fight … And I think that we would want to take a much closer look at how we’re providing services and how we’re dealing with these people that are pushed away to the margins of our society.”

He suggested trustees explore guidelines centered on the restoration of safety and trust among patrons and staff, acknowledge the positions of power and privilege staff and patrons occupy and how that informs perception of each individual who may be in a certain situation.

He also suggested that the library’s executive director provide an annual public review of all safety plans, as well as reporting all safety incidents and response strategies.

Progress made

In the discussion, John Devaney, the library’s facilities manager, reminded officials of the progress the library has made.

“When I came to EPL in 2013, almost every day, we had two part-time safety monitors. We barely had any type of documentation, and they usually worked on the weekends or a couple of nights here and there. Today we have a full-blown team,” he said. “We have documentations. We did procedures — I required these guys to write in the log every hour, on the hour…”

He said it’s “a structured team,” which while not earning a lot of money, “brings a tremendous skill set.”

Shurbet said his remarks were directed strictly toward board policy and not toward the work that staff or Norborg does, sometimes under difficult circumstances.

The trustees at the meeting held off on directing Norborg to take any specific action at this time.

Trustee Esther Wallen said, “It sounds to me like this is a great conversation and should be continued.” Further, she said, some of the work being proposed “is actually already in process.”

Trustee Benjamin Schapiro said the process doesn’t have to be a formal one, “but it’s good for the board to encourage the director to do something that she’s already doing.”

“It’s good to have the board on record as saying that we do need to look at this,” Schapiro said. “We’ve got some criticism for the past where I think it was more than a little unfounded but that’s OK. But certainly we need to demonstrate that we are not ignoring that situation.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. I applaud EPL for going the route of hiring a full-time social worker. It’s absolutely the right decision and badly needed. I am also very happy to see the mention of establishing a partnership with Connections for the Homeless to learn deescalation strategies and gain insight into homelessness, trauma, and mental health challenges in the community. As mentioned in the article, Evanston has several outstanding organizations with highly-trained staff experienced in working successfully and compassionately with marginalized and vulnerable individuals of all ages. So much of the best library work is done in partnership with community organizations and it only makes sense that EPL would reach out to some of these orgs to better serve all patrons.

    For 15 years now, growing inequality, defunding of mental health services, the abandonment of individuals who age out of the foster care system, lack of affordable healthcare, and easy access to aggressively powerful prescription drugs and their illegal counterparts like Fentanyl has all led to a vast increase of individuals experiencing personal crises and traumas in nearly every community in America. It only makes sense that public libraries would see a rise in alarming incidents, personal altercations, and erratic behaviors occurring on their premises. Meanwhile, librarians and library staff who are not social workers, crisis counselors, or medics are being asked to perform the functions of these professions on top of their regular (already challenging) job responsibilities. It’s not fair.

    But, the people in crisis in our communities have a right to visit the library. That is the beauty of the public library – it is a place for everyone in the community. The dehumanizing language in some of the comments posted in reply to this article are appalling. What do you propose? We exclude unhoused people? How about people with a history of schizophrenia? What about people who struggle with trauma and addiction?

    But what are libraries to do? A perfect first step is to do what EPL proposes here: hire full-time social workers. Safety staffs should be composed primarily of those experienced in working with marginalized populations like homeless people, those with social work backgrounds, and people who act with compassion towards all regardless of age, race, mental health status, etc. Libraries should also absolutely be constantly training their staff on deescalation techniques, mental health first-aid, and anti-racism/equity work – everyone on staff needs to be part of building a welcoming, peaceful, and just public space – but librarians and other library staff can not – and should not – be expected to perform functions for which they are not professionally trained and are not the central function of their jobs.

    One final thought: the more guns introduced to a space, the higher the chances that there will be a shooting. Armed guards are NOT a solution to library safety. If you haven’t seen the footage of the January incident, watch it. The EPL security guard uses his handgun recklessly and passes the aim of his weapon across several bodies using the library. Everyone present at that incident is incredibly lucky to have escaped unharmed. Even though the patron on the floor did attack the security guard, if there hadn’t been a gun present, there would have been no possibility of anyone – including the children who were there – getting shot. Libraries must not risk the public’s safety by introducing guns into their spaces and calling it OK because the person with the gun has a certain job title. As we saw in the January incident, the fact that the man wielding the gun was an official security guard on staff did not keep the situation from being reckless and incredibly dangerous. The public deserves better.

  2. I visit the Library often. I may not stay there for fours hours at a time, but I never feel not safe. I am sure there are situations were people can become loud and sometimes disruptive but an armed police person is not the answer. We don’t have enough of them on the streets of Evanston as it is. Isn’t an experienced person in de-escalation, etc., like a social worker what communities in here, in Chicago and all over the country are calling for more of to handle these situations where police are really not needed and often times escalate the situation. Sounds like the library leadership is taking security there seriously and I commend them.

  3. The quoted comments from a board member, specifically: “… explore guidelines centered on the restoration of safety and trust among patrons and staff, acknowledge the positions of power and privilege staff and patrons occupy and how that informs perception of each individual who may be in a certain situation” is gobbledygook. There are certain behaviors that everyone who steps into a public library or public space is expected to follow: beating up a security officer is not one of them. Shifting the discussion on to staff or members of the public who have entered to library to do what you do at a library: peruse the stacks, find books, check-out books, do research or homework, ask a librarian when stumped, participate in community events, etc, is absurd. Sleeping in the library because it is a safe space is not one of its intended uses. In past visits, I saw staff members wake sleeping patrons and tell them they could not sleep there and had to leave if they could not stay awake. If they become violent or cantankerous, the issue of security has arisen. The library board has decided it must fund a dedicated position from their library budget and hire a person from the female-dominated field of social work to deal with situations like these (or worse) to align with the idea of reimagining public safety. Since library hours do not coincide with a regular 8-hour shift, perhaps additional staff will need to be hired at additional expense. I ask the board members after reading this article to reconsider. It is really a job for the police. The mayor and the city council need to start up a real community forum with representatives from many institutions and businesses at this point in time. The downtown may need a particular focus. Since a shooting that ended in a teen’s death and critical wounds for another at the Clark Street beach; a “wilding” event at Lighthouse Beach that resulted in burned and damaged lifeguard towers, a probable, unlawful entry at the dilapidated and abandoned structure at 2603 Sheridan Road where a robin was hung by its neck from a second-floor balustrade, the city needs to have more than the mayor’s proposal of additional police patrols of our lakefront this summer. It is time for an effective Community Forum which includes the Police Department that meets regularly to address all manners of behavior that are cause for city-wide concern.

  4. “Norborg said she’s also working with Connections for the Homeless, the Evanston homeless advocacy group, to provide in-person training on de-escalation techniques, and issues specific to working with people experiencing trauma…”

    As a former Connections for the Homeless employee, I can state that their “training” consists of viewing a 30 – minute “de – escalation” video and then “discussing” it – which IMO is “perfunctory” at best…

    I work out af an office at the library, and there is an increasing amount of “disruptive” behavior engaged in by some patrons. IMO I’d feel *much* safer if there were an armed security guard – IOW a uniformed Police Officer – posted full – time on the premises…

    Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident