By Bob Seidenberg
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.”
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.
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.”