Safety concerns raised at Puyallup’s city library

Puyallup Library staff and board members are urging the city to improve security in response to growing concerns about safety.

Four of the city’s library board members spoke at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting about a recent assault and other behavior trouble at the library building on South Meridian.

“The library’s employees have indicated they don’t feel safe anymore,” board member Barbara Kastama said. “Disruptive patrons have been getting out of hand.”

Library Director Tim Wadham pointed to an increase in misbehavior in recent months, ranging from public intoxication to verbal abuse toward staff and patrons. He said it’s not clear what has caused the problems.

“We try to consistently and positively enforce a basic code of conduct,” Wadham told The News Tribune on Wednesday.

Many say an assault late last year underscores the need for improved security. A 39-year-old transient woman, who was being escorted out of the library for disorderly conduct, assaulted a 63-year-old librarian.

Puyallup police said the patron punched the librarian in the face and pulled her to the ground by the hair. The patron was later arrested in a nearby park.

Wadham said that was the only assault at the library, though other threatening incidents have occurred that are cause for concern.

The library has banned at least one person from the building; others have been temporarily barred from the premises for a variety of behavioral problems. Wadham said those restrictions can last anywhere from a week to 90 days. Beyond that, he said, the police and courts get involved.

Board member Darice Hermann said staffing levels add urgency to the safety concerns. Hermann said the reference desk on the top floor of the library is typically staffed by only one person tied to a desk.

“It allows for all sorts of madness to be occurring” elsewhere, she said.

“Everyone is welcomed to be in our library,” Hermann said at the meeting. “But not every behavior is.”

Wadham said the Puyallup Library, unlike many library systems, has never employed a security guard. Cities such as Tacoma and Seattle have security departments to deal with conduct issues, he said.

City Council members all agreed that the city should take a closer look at the concerns.

“I think we need to do something about security there,” Councilwoman Julie Door said.

Councilman Tom Swanson suggested looking at hiring a “limited commission” security guard, similar to a parking enforcement officer.

Mayor John Knutsen and Councilman Steve Vermillion questioned whether the problems are connected to the Freezing Nights program, which offers shelter to homeless individuals during cold months.

Freezing Nights organizers need to patrol where guests are going and “causing havoc,” Knutsen said.

Vermillion said he’s heard reports of Puyallup residents avoiding the library as a result of the behavior problems. Wadham said that’s anecdotal, but the library did see about 2,000 fewer visitors last year compared with 2013.

Dee Dee Henry, another library board member, said the problems are serious. She agreed with others that having a security guard would be a good option to protect staff.

“These are not social workers. They’re not martial arts experts. They’re librarians,” she said. “We can’t afford to have another incident that puts city staff in harm’s way.”