Hartford Director Responds to Outcry over Security

Hartford Director Responds to Outcry over Security

The director of the Hartford (Conn.) Public Library is confronting charges leveled since mid-May in the Hartford Courant that the Main Library is increasingly beset with visitors engaging in drug and alcohol use, sexual activity, gang recruiting, and other intimidating behavior that is driving away law-abiding patrons and frightening staff members. A May 18 story included an allegation that library employees fear retaliation from management if they call the police and are expected instead to handle unruly visitors themselves.

HPL Director Louise Blalock responded to an interview request from American Libraries by citing her May 29 appearance on the CBS-TV affiliate WFSB.

In the 10-minute segment, Blalock asserted that HPL “has always called police and reported criminal activity . . . and the police have been very responsive to all of our calls.” Emphasizing that “99.9% of all people who come in use the library appropriately,” she said societal ills such as joblessness, poverty, and inadequate mental-health care “are turning up at the doors of our libraries, especially our urban libraries, all across the country,” just as they do in other public spaces such as parks, malls, and public schools. “My question would be: Do libraries contribute to the problem, or are libraries part of the solution?” Blalock asked rhetorically, going on to note that HPL’s “zero tolerance for bad behavior” is reflected in the 12-month ban imposed on nine people this fiscal year for repeated behavior problems, with a record of each action “sent to the office of the mayor so the city is informed.”

Keeping Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez in the loop has become a crucial issue on another front. In a May 28 press release, the mayor questioned whether the library has ever been in compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act because the library did not install filtering software until this March. (CIPA mandates that filtering technology be used in public libraries and schools receiving federal e-rate discounts for telecommunications hookups.) Noting that HPL’s FY2008 budget includes over $1 million in LSTA grants, Perez wrote that he fears that the library’s eligibility for further federal aid “is in jeopardy because of current internet standards in place.” However, the LSTA grants he cited were not subject to e-rate regulations since they funded such offline services as book acquisitions, Blalock replied in an open letter that same day.

In a June 4 statement to the Courant, Blalock said the library “has asked the federal authorities to review its applications for federal funding and its filtering practices to ensure that it is in compliance with the law.” A May 29 Courant story charges that HPL may not have been eligible to receive more than $700,000 it was granted since 2000 in internet and telecommunications discounts. However, the Federal Communications Commission only began enforcing CIPA in July 2004, a year after the filtering mandate law was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court and four years after it was enacted.

At its June 5 board meeting, trustees announced that library officials are forming a 14-member task force comprised of trustees, staff, and constituents to review all policies and submit a report in September; would collaborate with a security expert to improve safety measures; and were scheduling staff training in dealing with disruptive and dangerous behavior. But Hartford resident Angel Morales told trustees the actions weren’t enough. “I have pictures of people viewing pornography, which I’m about to present to federal authorities,” Morales said, according to the June 6 Courant.

Posted on June 4, 2008; modified on June 6, 2008. Discuss.