Evanston Public Library officials want more details before they engage a firm to provide security at the main library, 1703 Orrington Ave., where security has been an issue in recent months.

Several trustees raised concerns at their May 17 meeting about entering into a contract with Skokie-based Phoenix Security.

The city has been using Phoenix, headed by a retired Evanston police officer, to provide security for the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center since 2019.

Trustees raised concerns whether the firm’s handling of incidents was in line with the library’s emphasis on moving away from policing and employing de-escalation techniques for dealing with individuals experiencing crisis. 

The approach became a discussion item at previous meetings after a harrowing 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.

Trustee Russ Shurbet asked whether the library’s contract with Phoenix would include “nonviolent de-escalation training and trauma-informed care. Because if we hire these people [even if not armed with a gun] we’re still policing.”

Evanston Library Board discussed security at meeting May 17. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

Shurbet maintained that data is conclusive that there’s no meaningful improvement of safety through a policing-first approach. He argued that in the library’s efforts to provide a safe place, certain activities should not be viewed as safety issues.

“Sleeping or lying on the floor is not a security or safety issue,” he said. “Those are issues but they do not require policing,” he said. “What they require is an institution that looks outside the box and tries to figure out how can we creatively include these people? How can we mitigate these things inside our institution?”

He urged trustees to take a harder look at the issue before committing resources.

Trustee Benjamin Schapiro said he agreed with Shurbet in the need for alternative approaches.

He stressed that the proposal he put in motion with the library’s Interim Executive Director Heather Norborg should be viewed as a beginning. (The proposal was not included in the packet of information for the meeting.) He said engaging the firm’s services as a backup for the library’s small security staff “is only a tiny part“ but “an important part right now with people physically getting hurt.”

Schapiro, board treasurer and former library director in Morton Grove, noted while some libraries have initiatives about reaching the unserved and underserved, “it’s been our motto for years and years and years.”

Once past the search for a new permanent director, expected to conclude this summer, he expressed hope the library could “dive deeply” into greater efforts in that direction, and start looking at how the budget’s going to be structured to address needs.

Tensions high

Trustee Shawn Iles, who manages Interfaith of Evanston’s Emergency Overnight Shelter, argued that the library couldn’t wait until then.

He said as a result of the debate over Connections for the Homeless’ bid to obtain zoning to open up a permanent shelter at the Margarita Inn, “there’s a lot of tension in our community right now,” affecting homeless individuals and making them feel less secure.

“So all of a sudden I’m getting more complaints,” he told board members. “I had one complaint in the first 27 weeks of the shelter season. I’ve had multiple complaints in the last week.”

“We need to consider that for the unhoused a lot has happened recently,” he said. “If you feel there’s an increase in incidents, that’s correct. There’s a lot more stress on them as pandemic funding falls away. And SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits cut on March 1.”

Added to that, his clients see “[President] Biden and the Republicans debate about how they’re going to come to terms over the debt ceiling; they’re talking about cutting funding, they’re talking about adding mandatory work.”

In funding for the migrants, they wonder why there’s no funding for them, he said.

‘A lot of frustration’

“There’s just a lot of frustration on both sides of the equation,” Iles said. “That’s the reality we’re trying to navigate.”

“So I don’t think this is a problem that we can push off until we find a director. I think it’s a part of how we choose somebody. We need to choose a director that has experience,” he said. The experience, though, doesn’t necessarily have to be in a library setting, Iles said, but the person has to have tools to address the issues he’s seeing.

Schapiro urged members to look at beefing up understaffed security at the moment.

“We have a need,” he stressed. “We’ve had people injured, physically injured, when we know that if we had backup available at the time we could have mitigated the severity of these injuries, or the nature of the whole interaction to begin with.”

Several other trustees spoke of the need to seek further details in a meeting with Phoenix.

“There’s something in the comprehensive safety plan that I saw that is part of why I’m nervous about a group like Phoenix security,” Iles said. “What’s their training? What was their goal? We talked about long term you’d want to have accountability for implementing de-escalation. What is that? We don’t really know what that is and how we are going to hold Phoenix accountable for implementing de-escalation techniques.”

Trustee Esther Wallen asked whether in discussions with the company, “are we at liberty to have a conversation where we say, ‘OK, sleeping, hygiene or using the bathrooms, those are not issues of violence … they may be concerning but they’re not issues of violence? And so that’s not where we want you to focus your efforts.”

Library Board President Tracy Fulce, speaking to Shurbet’s point, agreed it would be “a little concerning if someone doesn’t have de-escalation training. There’s a lens with which people operate,” she said, with the policing lens different from even a community-policing lens.

To Iles’ points, she expressed concern that “if we don’t take that community safety approach, that it will actually escalate violence, rather than decrease violence.”

Schapiro said he didn’t see bringing Phoenix in so much as a policing issue, but more as a backup for the library’s safety team.

Meanwhile, the library employees report to their supervisors who report indirectly to the board. “There’s a real chain of command,” he said.

‘Real need to do something’

Trustee Terry Soto observed that “we want to do something – I mean, there’s a real need for us to do something.”

But Soto recognized concerns raised by other trustees, and was fearful an action by the library could escalate into potential violence.

She acknowledged she didn’t know about the security firm’s training. But “I have a bias that most people that go into security do have a law enforcement lens. So I think we have to step back,” she said, supporting a suggestion made earlier in the meeting that Trilogy Behavioral Healthcare be brought into the response.

Board members took no action on the issue, which was marked for discussion.

Instead, they directed Norborg to meet with Phoenix representatives to get answers to their concerns.

Shurbet emphasized that the library’s number one issue is the safety of patrons and staff, and then having a first line of people “who understand what de-escalation is and they get into that mindset so they can truly de-escalate the situation.”

“My approach has been to try to bring to the forefront that some of these issues, there are reasons for them,” he said. 

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. +1 Sari

    Talking abour this stuff ahead of time makes all kinds of sense. When you have a contract, its very important to be clear on the “deliverables” and how performance will be evaluated and what constitutes breach.

    About policing. My small experience with police seems to indicate they are quite well trained and effective at defusing situations; “incidents” dont improve their day at all. So using the word “policing” as a pejorative meaning synonymous with choosing violence sounds quite incorrect and even bigotted to me.

    > safety
    The “nice” tactic may take noticeably more time. How much sleeping, hygiene and noise disruption is the threshold before patrons start blaming library leadership for a bad experience and calling for a change (of leadership)?

    >chain of command
    Pretty damn important where lines of responsibility lie.

  2. Really happy to see the board thinking about how to incorporate safety in a way that addresses the needs of the homeless population through a multifaceted care lens rather than through policing alone. Please continue this excellent work!