The police department can find in the public library a place to connect one-on-one with citizens in a natural and comfortable setting, a ready-made audience for public relations and a helpful collaborating agency for promoting messages of safety and crime prevention.
A police-library partnership—a concept that has been successfully implemented in a number of US towns and cities—will create positive relationships so that when something goes wrong, whether in the library or elsewhere, trust and cooperation will underlie emergency and investigative efforts.
With so much to do every day, it is truly difficult for officers to find the time to “get away from work” to nurture that all important relationship with those they protect, but the payoff from even just a five minute chit-chat can be enormous. Striking up a conversation in the library checkout line, an officer can pick up tidbits he will not hear in 10 years of sitting in the patrol car—information as simple as connecting a name with a face—information that could one day help save a life. The library can serve as a convenient one-stop place to drop in and connect.
Library users represent a cross-section of the community. The modern public library is a number one destination for the elderly, a getting-to-know-you place for newcomers, a magnet for teens and a must for preschoolers. Nationwide, on the average, visits to public libraries increased by over 21% between 1992 and 2000. In 2000, libraries serving towns with a population of 2,500 to 5,000, had an average of 330 visits per week. For towns with a population between 5,000 and 10,000, the average number of weekly visits was 700. Libraries serving cities of 10,000 to 25,000 averaged 1,600 visits per week.
The public library of 2004 is far from the quiet, peaceful, purely bookish place of the past. One of the chief reasons for this is the offering of free Internet access. From the tiniest rural shack of a library to the largest city mega-library, the public library has become the place for residents and passers-by, rich and poor alike to pull up a chair and surf the Net.
Free computer services have contributed greatly to the sharp increase in library visits and the greater variety of library clientele. From the briefcase toting business entrepreneur who needs to print a file because his own printer has gone on the blink, to the unemployed factory worker checking on-line job postings, a cross-section of society files through the library each day.
Library users represent the full range of familiarity with law enforcement—those who have never had so much as a traffic violation to those whose brother, brother-in-law, cousin and grandmother all have had criminal convictions. It’s a good place for police to present a friendly image to immigrants who might need adjustment to the idea that police are here to serve and protect, unlike, perhaps, in their native culture, where the authorities are feared.
In short, the library is a people crossroads—a bonanza for police. Ways to connect with people at the library range from the small, quick and easy to large-scale or on-going programs that require planning and scheduling.Preschoolers
Although there are officers who need a nudge to get into the “kid-cop” role, it’s a necessary investment—one with big returns. Developing friendships with kids, not much older than babies, can lead to positive police-teen relationships ten years down the road when the former toddler starts sprouting pimples. The investment begins when a three-year-old learns there’s a warm human being behind that uniform, not the “Boogey-man” who is going to put him in jail for whining (as Mom has, unfortunately, told him). Enticing programs have been designed to do just that.
One such program is as simple as arranging with the librarian for an officer to come to story hour and read aloud Officer Buckle and Gloria
, the Caldecott Medal winner by Peggy Rathmann. Getting more elaborate, the department can help put on a vehicle petting zoo. Following a picture book read-aloud session on the theme of trucks and cars, children, parents, librarians, and police can go out into the parking lot and find (to their surprise) squad cars, fire-trucks, and backhoes.
Yes, Nathan, you can climb into the seat! To hold such a program, partner with the librarian in charge of story hour. Offer to arrange for the arrival of all the vehicles and provide officers to attend in full uniform. The children’s librarian will choose and read the books. The program can be kept simple, with, for instance, parents bringing their own cameras for the photo opportunities. As they meet the kids, officers should make the point that they are moms and dads too.
In an adaptation of a program for preschoolers first conducted at the Chicago Public Library, the three little pigs learn to dial 911 instead of running desperately from house to house to escape the big bad wolf. After a five-minute presentation from police officers on how to call 911, the librarian presents a dramatic re-enactment of “The Three Little Pigs.” The children who play the parts of the pigs and the wolf have learned their roles earlier.
Each time the big bad wolf comes knocking on the door, the pigs dial 911 on a toy telephone. At the first pig’s house, the officer takes a report (the wolf ran away when he heard the siren) and escorts the first pig safely to his brother’s house. At the second pig’s house, the officer gets a description and passes out wanted posters to the audience.
At the third pig’s house, the officers don’t use a siren and arrest the big bad wolf. Another way to do this is with felt board or puppet characters and with the kids in the audience yelling out “911” at the appropriate times. (A police puppet can be purchased at www.pufferbellytoys.com
). After School
The five through 10-year-old age group frequent, the library after school, weekends and summers. An advantage of police-library programs geared toward this group is that officers can mingle with the children’s parents, siblings, and grandparents, and thus come to know kids in the all-important familial context.
Consider doing a library after-school or Saturday program for this audience that demonstrates the canine unit, mounted police, invisible ink or crime detection methods. At the program’s conclusion, kids check out a mystery book to take home while police hand out badges, pencils, pamphlets and candy.
In Friona, TX (population 3,908), Chief Scott Given launched the 2003 summer reading program, “Mission Possible: Spy a Book,” by presenting a program to 132 children. Darla Bracken, Library Director, reported this one of the best programs the library had ever had and it improved the public/police relationship in their small town greatly. Teens
Libraries often set aside separate rooms for teens aged 11 to 16. Too old for a babysitter and too young to drive, young adults, YAs as librarians call them, are served up special book collections and specially designed YA programs. Police can sponsor programs to be held at the library during high risk time, the hours between school dismissal and parent pick-up time. From the informal, such as police being on hand in the YA room to help with homework or to play chess, to the more elaborate, connecting with teens at the library is less threatening than walking up to their street corner hang-out.
Harbormaster Dave Corbeau of the Scarborough, ME Police spends many an afternoon in the library just sitting around talking with teens. His job is seasonal (the harbor freezes) and his mid-winter visits are a natural, unstructured way of building respect between the department and the teens. Of the harbormaster’s casual presence at the library, Scarborough Chief Robert Moulton said, “Dave commands a lot of respect from the kids and also has the ability to let them know that he really cares about them as well.”
If a more structured program is preferred, police can direct teens in role-playing re-enactments of an actual criminal case. This is a fun, highly interactive program. Teens learn the parts played by everyone from judge and district attorney to suspects, witnesses, and arresting officers. The program increases teens’ knowledge of what police do. This is the perfect program for the member of the force with dramatic talent.
Meanwhile, for those officers who like to make and wear costumes, there’s “Ghosts in the Graveyard,” another program that originated at the Chicago Public Library. On Halloween Night teens are taken to the cemetery where officers and librarians, dressed as monsters, tell scary stories. This program has the added benefit of deterring any would-be cemetery vandals.Adults
Working adults make the quickest of visits to the library or neighborhood bookmobile. They zip in, get a book, and zip out. However, many will come back in the evening or on Saturdays if offered a lecture on safeguarding their homes, self defense instruction, or a slide show on detective work.
Some may belong to the library’s mystery and crime fiction reading and discussion group and the librarian can draw on this ready-made, diverse audience to pack the seats for a police program. These are the bread-winning tax-payers. As they gain an understanding of what police do, they’ll be more supportive of law enforcement services.Seniors
There are a number of ways to connect with seniors through the library. An older person who visits the library for conversation just as much as to find something to read, and who is reluctant to “bother” the police concerning that door-to-door salesman about whom they feel uncomfortable, is more likely to pick up the phone and call the department if they have chatted with an officer and have a name to go with the face and badge.
An officer who makes short but frequent forays to the library—to read the newspaper or check out a movie—will start up conversations with older people more naturally. Familiarity and trust will grow.
For the best attendance, programs for seniors should be scheduled during the day, but there will still be those who cannot attend. It is important to remember the invisible population of seniors who use the library only through the help of those who deliver books to their homes. Police outreach to this group can work through the library, too. In Upland, CA Police Chief Martin Thouvenell offered his police volunteers for home book deliveries for shut-ins. General
As soon as the moving truck pulls away there are new residents who will head to the public library to get oriented. Joining the library in putting together welcome packets for newcomers is a good way to distribute police informational flyers. The library’s pamphlet rack can be used to circulate brochures on drug addiction, seat belt laws, water safety rules, and money scams.
More safety and crime prevention topics are covered in the library’s book collection. The department can ask the library for a printout of the library’s books on these topics. If crime and safety topics are not well covered, consider a department annual donation to the crime prevention section of the public book collection (a sticker or book plate will acknowledge the department’s donation).
Police should offer suggestions, but let the librarian do the choosing. The library may also be willing to manage the circulation of a private, for-officers-only collection of training manuals and videos.
Librarians are human search engines. As information specialists, librarians are uniquely qualified to help the department with matters requiring research. With their advanced search tools and sophisticated training, librarians can discern quality information and cull out the unreliable. They can find the data needed to help win a grant, the facts to list in a handout for a program on mail fraud or the source to search for comparative information about equipment the department wishes to purchase.Electronic Traffic
Many libraries, including the very smallest ones, have their own servers and can host the police department web site. The library’s technology coordinator may even help design and maintain the police website. It’s a good idea to include a link between the police homepage and the library’s homepage.
Many library’s websites—and the advanced research tools they provide—are accessible from library cardholders’ home computers, making the library a virtual location that receives a lot of electronic traffic.
People go to the on-line library to access search engines, use databases, renew books and browse the catalog. The police will benefit from the increased exposure that will come from a catchy link between the two homepages. The two departments can work together to select safety related hyperlinks for both websites.
Partnership is a two-way street. Unfortunately, the modern library—in operation as much as 12 hours per day and with its doors open both before and after dark—has high potential as a crime scene. The police-library partnership can help make the library a safer work place and public facility.
While both departments strive to protect citizens’ rights to privacy, there is some information they had best share. Police can provide library staff with information about known sexual predators and the library can report suspicious behavior to police. Police can help library staff recognize the warning signs of substance abuse and child or spousal abuse so there can be a community response to community problems.
Lastly, police can help the library by delivering final notices to those few but rapscallion borrowers who have ignored months’ worth of overdue reminders delivered by postal service carriers.
Relationships have extremes. The library and police departments in Chaska, MN have moved right in together. Marydel Ketcham, Chaska librarian, has worked with the Chaska Police on numerous collaborative projects, including a program she does jointly with Sergeant Jon Kehrberg entitled “ The Librarian and the Detective” that draws standing room only crowds. Ketcham said, “While these cooperative events benefit both the police department and the library, the real beneficiaries are the residents of Chaska.”
It is always the human touch that matters most. The sight of a uniformed police officer relaxing in a library armchair perusing an issue of “workbench” will say two things loud and clear to your community: 1) this is a safe place, and 2) this is a police department that truly lives among us.”
Librarian and freelance writer Katherine Marks-Molloy lives and works in Orono, ME with her three sons. Photos by Ana Blagojevic, a photography student from Orono, ME.