After VTA shooting, San Jose library workers worry they’re next
Students study at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library at San Jose State University in this file photo.

Stopping fights, finding bloody clothes and calling the police: All in a day’s work for San Jose Public Library employees.

Library workers are concerned for their safety following the May 26 mass shooting at a VTA light rail yard that left 10 dead including the gunman. One employee started a petition demanding library leaders and city officials address workers’ worries.

Benjamin Martinez, a library employee since 2005, said he and his colleagues have to break up fights, calm agitated patrons and escort out problematic ones on a regular basis, on top of coordinating work schedules and addressing daily operational issues.

One time, Martinez said he found clothes soaked in blood in the library’s bathroom after a lunch break.

“The libraries are designated safe places,” Martinez told San José Spotlight. “But sometimes it’s hard to feel comfortable working there.”

With branches spanning across the city, the San Jose Public Library employs almost 600 workers and welcomed more than 4 million annual visitors prior to the pandemic.

For several years, two full-time security guards and one part-time guard roamed among the library system’s 24 branches. Over the course of the pandemic, that dropped to one.

When situations become confrontational or violent, workers call both library security and the San Jose Police Department. Employees say officers offer little help, as they either respond late to calls or not at all.

This leaves library workers fending for themselves, said Jenny Mai, a librarian at the Tully branch. After a spike in violent crimes targeting Asians in the Bay Area and the mass shooting at VTA last month, anxiety in the libraries is running high.

“Our security guard has made good efforts, but he can’t be everywhere,” Mai said. “We have a lot of Asian staff and patrons at our branch… I’m scared that something bad would happen.”

A San José Spotlight analysis of the police department’s calls for service data in 2020 shows more than 980 instances where police were called to library branches and their surrounding areas. One hundred and seventy of those calls were to downtown’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, many for disturbances and welfare checks.

Out of all the calls, officers couldn’t locate suspects about 90 times. Police took reports approximately 90 times, made about 20 arrests and issued eight criminal citations. In 485 instances, police responded but didn’t take a report. More than 160 calls were canceled.

Library workers demand the city and San Jose Public Library address the lack of security infrastructure and procedures in their workplace. More than 240 people joined Mai in signing the petition that Martinez started last week.

“The lack of support and accountability from both city and library department administration has resulted in multiple staff being harassed, threatened and assaulted throughout the years,” the petition reads. “The recent horrific event is a continued reminder of the jeopardy we as public servants, as well as the patrons and their families we serve, are subjected and made vulnerable to.”

In an email to San José Spotlight, Library Director Jill Bourne said the petition is “based on a number of inaccuracies, omissions, and opinions.” She said safety and security concerns have always been high priority for the library.

“There are no simple or universal solutions,” Bourne said. “Being open to everyone means that every issue that our city and residents face may impact our libraries.”

The San Jose Public Library worked to increase security measures over the last few years, Bourne said. The department employed contract security, installed security cameras and brought in social work services to select branches. The library is in the process of hiring another full-time security guard as branches open back up.

In addition, the library is launching a systemwide assessment to further address safety issues and concerns.

"I love working at the library," Mai said. "And we have to do our job in making sure everyone is welcome, but we don't often get the support from administration to do it well."

Understaffed, unsafe working environment

As the library’s union representative, Martinez said he's heard horror stories from other workers for years, some of whom had to get restraining orders against patrons or transfer to a different branch out of fear for their safety.

In several incidents, library workers couldn’t enter the building because people were camping at the door, Martinez said. When police came, he said officers sometimes found makeshift weapons and even a handgun.

Others who signed the petition shared similar experiences and said their concerns fell on deaf ears for years.

“I’ve worked in the library system for 7 years and have been sexually harassed and verbally assaulted countless times," commenter Jocelyn Vann wrote. “There is never any protection for staff members.”

Another commenter, Amber Hargreaves, wrote she had canned food and computer monitors thrown at her face.

“I have had my life threatened, I've been spit at, verbally attacked, and sexually harassed," she wrote.

Martinez said the library isn't adequately staffed to deal with all the issues. Facing a $1 million budget cut last year amid the pandemic, the library eliminated 80 vacant positions and instituted a hiring freeze.

Spokesperson Elizabeth Castaneda said the library proposes bringing back approximately 37 positions in this year's budget. But further cuts continue to loom as the city faces a $48.1 million revenue shortfall, San José Spotlight reported.

“This is how the city is affording resources to us, to their senior citizens, students and kids (who use the libraries),” Martinez said. “I hope that our City Council takes into account that we’re not just public employees. We’re residents in the community too.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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