A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Policing and Social Justice in Libraries

by Kaila Rain Thomas, 2022 Spectrum Scholar on May 9, 2022

Catherine Hollerbach, Chief Operating Officer, Anne Arundel County (MD) Public Library, and Michelle Hamiel, Chief Operating Officer for Public Services, Prince George’s County Memorial Library (MD), presented a program at PLA 2022 called ‘Policing and Social Justice in Libraries.’ In this program they examined “the role that police officers and security guards play in making sure that libraries are truly welcoming to all and that staff and customers have the support they need when violence or criminal activities occur.” PLA 2022 featured a few sessions centered around policing and security measures, which was enticing, giving some of us in attendance the impression that we would come to these sessions to discuss real community concerns regarding safety, feelings of belonging, and alternatives to policing.

Instead, Hollerbach and Hamiel shared ideas for how library staff and library patrons should “develop relationships of trust and respect” with police officers and security guards within the library. This presentation was crafted in response to the presenters having participated in community discussions about de-funding the police and removing police from the library setting. They covered the differences between hiring police officers, security officers as library staff, and contract guards. In the process of hiring police officers, they make sure that their officers are trained and experienced in community policing and share the same values and perspectives as the library.

Throughout the presentation, they repeatedly emphasized “building trust” and “building community together,” expressing that the officers follow the librarians’ lead and engage with the patrons through programming and customer service. They shared anecdotes about their colleagues in uniform, including one rather troubling anecdote in which an officer got in an altercation with a teenage girl, resulting in the officer falling to the ground and a librarian calling 911 saying “officer down” in their request for assistance.

Perhaps this really works for their library staff and community. Hollerbach and Hamiel spoke about their staff and community embracing the police presence in their libraries and based on their presentation, it may be a viable option for them. However, what I found alarming was the lack of discussion about actual social justice work and the failure to acknowledge this framework won’t work for all communities, especially communities of color that experience the everyday impacts of policing and know that police are not our friends.

I mean no disrespect to Catherine Hollerbach and Michelle Hamiel but this is not how you lead an effective conversation about social justice and policing in the library. I was hesitant to use the platform I was given to write about this session, but I wanted to honor the librarians who were let down by the presentation. Those librarians went to this session hoping to brainstorm ideas for how to create more inclusive, welcoming, and safe environments for their BIPOC patrons, de-carcerated patrons, LGBTQIA+ patrons, patrons experiencing houselessness, patrons with disabilities, and patrons struggling with addiction. They were hoping to have honest conversations about police violence in their communities and safe alternatives like librarians participating in additional de-escalation training and library systems hiring social workers. They were hoping to discuss how to “build relationships of trust” with community organizations instead of their local police department and reinvest funds reserved for security into additional services for their patrons. They went to discuss neutrality, equal access, and intellectual freedom within the context of policing in libraries.

I understand the presenters’ concerns for the safety of their staff and communities and, to a degree, I admire their ability to make these relationships work within their county. I also understand that sometimes, you need someone to intervene in a crisis. However, library workers cannot rely so much on law enforcement that we become blind to the realities of the carceral state.

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