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Witnesses criticize Salt Lake City library security guard’s treatment of apparent book thief

Salt Lake Tribune logo Salt Lake Tribune 6 days ago Taylor Stevens
a building with a metal fence: (Rick Egan  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)   The Salt Lake City Public Library, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019. © Rick Egan (Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City Public Library, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019.

Community members are calling on the Salt Lake City Public Library to fire one of its contract security guards and ensure the remaining staff are retrained on deescalation techniques after a uniformed official allegedly attacked a man who appeared to be trying to steal a book.

A video of the incident, which happened at the city’s downtown main branch around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, shows a security guard screaming at a man and throwing items at him as he walked toward the door. “That’s assault!” the man yelled.

The guard then followed him outside and appeared to hit him with his baton.

“I just was really surprised,” said Madalena McNeil, who was there with a group of high school students as part of her work as an adviser for March for Our Lives Utah, which advocates for gun control measures. “I understand, you know, it’s a tough job and you’re there to provide security for the library but I was really surprised at the outburst.”

McNeil released footage of the altercation on her Twitter account later that night, as well as a video showing droplets of blood spread far along the cobblestones outside the library. She and the students have other videos but decided not to release ones that show the man’s face, McNeil noted.

Afterward, the unidentified security guard told onlookers that he hadn’t hit the man, McNeil said, but she said the official had his baton out and that it appeared he had.

There have been no previous complaints against the security guard, according to the library’s assistant director of marketing and communications, Quinn Smith. She said the library has opened an investigation, is reassessing its security measures, and will “take appropriate actions.”

Smith said the man seen in the video had been “asked to leave the building" because he was ”interfering with other patrons’ use of the library and had committed multiple violations of our code of conduct."

Library patrons’ safety “is our number one priority," Smith said. And the confrontation on Wednesday “is incredibly disheartening and upsetting" for the library staff, who have “taken pride" in their “abilities to regularly de-escalate unhealthy, uncomfortable, and at times, dangerous situations.”

And she asserted that the job of library security guard “is much more involved and emotionally tolling than most security roles are. Our team is not sitting behind closed walls watching security tapes. They are working side-by-side with some of our most vulnerable populations. People who have been let down by the system, may need additional support, and may need full-time care.”

McNeil said she thinks library officials typically do a good job at handling the complex circumstances they’re faced with in an area that sees high foot traffic and a diverse population.

But she said she was troubled by the event, which she said was “not OK at all,” and called on her Twitter followers Wednesday night to reach out to library Executive Director Peter Bromberg to demand action to be taken against the security guard.

“At the very least, [I hope] they do some kind of de-escalation training for their staff,” she said. “Even if they already do, it’s not effective for everyone, so I hope that employee has to face some kind of consequences — because I wouldn’t be comfortable having them interact with the general public. I’m not going to be comfortable if I see them at the library again.”

McNeil said on Twitter that the students she was with were shaken but that it led to “a good conversation about deescalation and state-sanctioned violence.” She added: “But like, any of them could’ve handled that better and they’re not even old enough to vote.”

— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this story.

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