Friday, August 12, 2022

ImagineIF Kalispell branch sees decrease in police calls with security upgrades

Bigfork Eagle | July 20, 2022 12:00 AM

Illegal activity, like drug use and sex, has plagued the second floor of the ImagineIF Library in Kalispell for months, but officials say the problem is abating thanks to new security measures.

Those changes include rearranging furniture and adding staff on the second floor. Library Director Ashley Cummins described the previous situation as intolerable.

“Those are two major red flags that we just absolutely cannot tolerate,” Cummins said, referring to sex and drug crimes. “The problem being that part of the second floor was sort of separated off, there were shelves limiting our view.”

Much of the illegal activity took place in the second floor bathroom, she said.

Visibility issues, when combined with being too understaffed to have someone constantly monitoring the floor, was “like putting down the welcome mat” for these activities to occur, Cummins said. Many attribute the issues to homeless people who frequent the library, but Cummins said that isn’t accurate. Staff witnessed other patrons take advantage of the homeless, including seeing men come in and harass homeless women, attempting to solicit sex.

“It starts to feel very predatory when you see these people that are struggling and then you have people coming in and kind of jumping on that opportunity. It was just a bad situation all the way around,” Cummins said. “I don't want to scare anyone who uses the library, for them to say, ‘Oh, my God, I didn't know that was going on and we don't want to come there anymore.’ But it was a serious problem.”

Kalispell Police Capt. Jordan Venezio said the department responded to 50 calls at the library so far this year. But the department’s call log wasn’t indicative of one overall problem at the library.

“It varies pretty widely for what we're there for, as far as not being a specific issue or repeatedly getting called for,” he said. “It's kind of all over the board: medical calls, there's welfare checks, there's ‘talk to pedestrians, trespassers.’ I mean, it's pretty all over the place as far as what we're going there for.”

But Venezio said they have seen a drop off in their visits to the library over the last six to eight weeks. That aligns with a timeline of changes library administrators and staff have made to improve security.

Rearranging furniture on the second floor and adding staff up there has made a “night and day difference,” Cummins said. She said they implemented a staff transition plan starting June 1, which added additional workers and allowed them to leave their desks, roam around and keep an eye on things.

“I've had patrons and staff all come to me and say, ‘Who knew that moving a few tables would make such a difference.’ But … people used to come into the library and when they'd step off the elevator, they'd hold their breath and just wonder what they were going to walk through. Now they just visit with no problems and we've had really, really great feedback,” Cummins said.

With larger problems seemingly ameliorated, Cummins said they are focusing on continually improving security on the second floor. Namely, finding a way to make the bathroom more secure.

Currently, patrons take an open walkway into the bathroom, so officials are looking at different doors to ensure that “when you go into the bathroom by yourself, you know you will be in there by yourself,” Cummins said.

“I think it would go a long way towards comforting some parents as well,” she said.

In addition to also looking at future modifications to increase access for patrons with disabilities, a request to purchase security cameras was approved by the county. Cummins said the library also is on the agenda for the Flathead Electric Cooperative’s upcoming board meeting, where they will discuss covering part of the cost for the cameras through their Round-up For Safety Grant. She said if it doesn’t go towards the cameras, it could potentially go towards bathroom security or replacing the lights in the library.

“I will just say again that I'm really happy with the progress we've seen from making the changes that we have, and I really think the additional changes we have planned will go a long way toward safety. We want everyone that comes to feel welcome and safe in our facility, so that's the goal,” Cummins said.