Spokane’s downtown library has become an unlikely ground zero for the political question of what to do about the rising visibility of homelessness.
Mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward posted multiple times on social media during the past several weeks, arguing the city needs to beef up security at the downtown library to combat what she describes as rampant drug use and feelings of insecurity among patrons. The posts, including a controversial video the library says was released in violation of public records laws, have inspired an impassioned response from Woodward’s opponents and library boosters who note the building is public and provides necessary services to those experiencing poverty.
The debate has trained a microscope on what is seen by many as an apolitical entity with a tradition of serving all who walk through its doors. The city’s next mayor also wouldn’t have the final say regarding whether there needs to be more security in the building, a decision that rests with the library’s board of appointed trustees.
“I think that it’s very unfortunate that such an isolated incident was used to indicate there is a systemic problem,” Mary Starkey, chairwoman of the Spokane Public Library board of trustees, said of the video’s release. “I don’t believe that there is.”
Woodward said the overwhelming response to the video shows there is concern in town about public safety, which is true of multiple locations in the downtown core. She also stressed that her concern with the library stems from drug use.
“When you have young families, young children, really a broad spectrum of people there, and people are going there to shoot up and hang out all day, addicted and high, it’s just not a safe environment,” Woodward said. “This isn’t just me saying this, they’re from the right and left, coming out of the woodwork, saying they’re not feeling safe there.”
City Council President Ben Stuckart has been a vocal critic of Woodward’s campaign posts about the library, and continued that criticism in an interview this week.
“To attack the libraries is, quite frankly, irresponsible,” Stuckart said. “Spreading fear when it’s not based on reality, it’s not responsible. It’s not leadership.”
Shawn Poole, a Spokane firefighter who’s also running for mayor, said he believed the release of the video by Woodward on social media was “more politically motivated than anything.” But he said there is a perception in the community that the library isn’t safe, and that addressing it by including supervision from a uniformed police officer – an idea floated by Woodward – made sense.
“It’s all a matter of perception. If even one person perceives the Spokane library’s unsafe, then we as a city have failed,” Poole said. “It’s a taxpayer-funded facility.”
Kelly Cruz said he agreed with Woodward that there seems to be a problem with increasing drug use in the library, but wouldn’t suggest more visible law enforcement in the facility to address the issue.
“The only thing a uniformed officer would do, outside of a private security guard, would be to immediately arrest the person on site,” Cruz said. “We’re stretched thin with our officers right now.”
While the downtown library does attract a large number of police calls, it’s not the downtown destination where officers are responding most often, according to numbers provided by the Spokane Police Department. Between Jan. 1 and June 12, the library had requested what’s known as a “call for service” 179 times from law enforcement. Those include issues like loitering, reports of a fight and request for assistance removing a patron who’s not following the posted rules of the library. Those rules were updated in September and include several behaviors that Woodward cited as concerns, including drug use in and outside of the blue-lit bathrooms.
By contrast, the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza, site of a deadly stabbing five years ago, received 641 calls for service during the same period, according to police. And the intersection of Division Street and Second Avenue, a location with a 7-Eleven and Starbucks where many congregate during daytime hours, received more than 430 calls for police assistance.
Those who spend their days at the downtown library note there is some bad behavior.
Jay Haynes, who stopped in the library Tuesday afternoon to charge a cellphone he’d just purchased, said he’d witnessed people who appeared mentally ill yell at patrons and library workers. Haynes, who said he’d been homeless for about three years off and on since his release from prison in 2004, also called the library safer than other options available to those without homes.
“I’ve never seen anybody throw a fist,” said Haynes, who is now receiving housing assistance. “I’ve seen a lot of yelling. I think it’s one of the safest places in town.”
Haynes’ first question after learning of the proposal to staff the library with a uniformed officer was who was going to pay for it: the city or the library?
A man with a service dog, who would only give his name as “Spyro” during an afternoon interview last week, said he’d personally witnessed drug deals occurring inside the library. But, he said, it offered a place out of the heat in the summers and kept him and others like him from spending their hours in Riverfront Park or elsewhere.
“If you do that, no one is going to want to come down here,” he said of adding security, and potentially even a uniformed police officer, at the downtown library. “It would freak out a lot of people.”
Patrick Jones, another daily visitor to the downtown library who is homeless, said removing the building as a daily destination for those on the streets would be a bad idea. Walking down the stairs leading from the second-story library entrance to Main Avenue, Jones paused to sit down, citing a bout of bad blood pressure. A security guard came up to him, reminded him that sitting on the steps wasn’t permitted, then asked about the heat before sending Jones on his way.
“The computers on the third floor, it gives them something else to focus on besides the drugs,” Jones said. “It’s way safer for them to be there, than on the street.”
The downtown library has not seen any increase in disruptive or rule-breaking behavior in the past few weeks, said Jason Johnson, community engagement manager for the building. When someone does violate the code of conduct, security guards will give a warning, then ask the person to leave for the day. In extreme cases, including when police are called, a person may be banned from all branches of the library system.
“There are times when we are issuing quite a few of them, and then weeks go by without one. It’s cyclical,” Johnson said. “By no means are our homeless customers the only ones who violate the code of conduct.”
Woodward has suggested putting a uniformed officer in the library and paying for his or her salary out of the library’s operating budget. That budget totaled $10.8 million this year, which includes a $56,000 annual contract with the firm that provides security for the downtown library during the 52 hours it’s open a week. Paying a full-time police officer, based on SPD’s rates, would cost the library between $160,000 and $220,000 a year, more than three times its current expenses on security.
Woodward called the value of paying that much for an officer “a good question” but argued something needed to be done about the drug use, which she said could lead to violence.
“The hope would be, the library board would find a way to be able to manage the drug use that’s going on in the library,” Woodward said.
Poole said the library system should be able to find in its budget some money for enhanced security downtown.
“A uniformed police officer, that has a presence in the library, that in and of itself is going to act as a deterrent,” he said.
Stuckart said he wouldn’t support changes to the security structure downtown, spending that would likely require approval from the library board of trustees and possibly also the full City Council, under administrative procedures for approving contracts. Those expenses would likely mean cuts to other services from the library in future budgets, he said.
“If you’re going to pay for a police officer, that’s a full-time librarian,” Stuckart said. “Are we going to sacrifice Sunday hours at the Shadle Park branch for this? You don’t get to advocate for putting a police officer in the library without admitting what library services you’re willing to cut.”
Cruz noted police aren’t stationed far from the library at Main Avenue and Lincoln Street.
“I guess what I’m saying is we need to tell the bad apples to keep from spoiling it for the rest of us,” he said.
A candidate forum is scheduled Thursday at the downtown library, sponsored by community radio station KYRS. Stuckart, Poole and Cruz are scheduled to appear, along with Jonathan Bingle, who said he hasn’t formed an opinion on the library security issue.
Woodward said she had scheduled a previous campaign event for that night and couldn’t attend. She plans to record an interview with KYRS forum host Paul Potocky following the forum.
Johnson said the library’s message during the controversy is clear.
“We had more than 300,000 people last year come in here,” he said. “It is a safe place to be. You can feel safe and use our services. It’s not a dangerous place to be.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.