Content disclosure: This story contains descriptions of physical and sexual assault.
A patron exposing himself to librarians, another hitting a staff member with a metal trash can and a third making death threats are a few of the hundreds of incident reports filed by library staff in Fort Worth’s Central Library over a period of just six months.
Internal records obtained by the Fort Worth Report reveal patrons with multiple offenses, and often multi-year bans, enter and re-enter Fort Worth’s libraries without significant consequences. A small, consistent group of homeless patrons are involved in many of the reports, which describe verbal conflicts turning violent and assaults against librarians resulting in threats and trespass warnings.
Assaults — physical, sexual and verbal — are becoming more common at the library’s central branch in particular. In 2022, police issued about six times more criminal trespass warnings to patrons of Fort Worth’s Central Library compared with 2021.
So far in 2022, police issued 18 criminal trespass warnings to patrons for violent behavior in Fort Worth’s central branch alone. In 2021, they issued three. Of the 18 patrons issued criminal trespass warnings this year, at least 10 later returned to the central branch, according to records.
In exit interviews, conducted by library management with leaving staff, staff express these concerns multiple times during the past several years. The incidents cited in those exit interviews are echoed by police reports, which describe patrons hurling drinks at staff, shouting expletives and sexually harassing both staff and other patrons.
Although the Central Library employs third-party security guards, library staff say there have been months where guards are not present because the city has not entered into a new contract.
The Fort Worth Report spoke with three current librarians who asked to remain anonymous because of fears of retaliation from management. When guards are on site, all three librarians say they cannot depend on security to stop dangerous patrons before an incident occurs.
“You have to be constantly on alert as to who’s in your area,” a staff member who works at the Central Library said. “It makes me think, too, that we have a leadership that really isn’t taking things seriously.”
Library leadership argues it has done all it can to keep staff safe. The very public nature of library buildings, they say, makes it difficult to provide a completely risk-free work environment. Many of the patrons mentioned in incident reports are described as homeless by library staff, and looking for a safe, climate-controlled space. Some have documented mental health issues, while others have recently been released from jail or other disciplinary facilities.
Homelessness and violence are community issues, not a library issue, said Manya Shorr, who has served as Fort Worth’s library director since 2017. The majority of incidents at Fort Worth’s library branches are resolved at Fort Worth’s library branches without harm to staff or other patrons, Shorr said.
As incidents at Fort Worth’s Central Library escalate, Fort Worth City Council voted Dec. 13 to approve the sale of the building that currently houses the Central Library. The library will continue operating in the building until summer 2023, when it will move into a new location. Library administration said it will consider shrinking its presence downtown, meaning fewer homeless people spending hours inside the library.
Violent encounters persist in other libraries around the city, and likely will continue there even after the Central Library is sold, Shorr said.
“There is no such thing as guaranteed safety,” Shorr said.
Internal incident reports
On May 17, Fort Worth library staff received a departmentwide email: A patron had exposed his penis to a staff member and masturbated in the Central Library’s computer lab.
Police issued the offender, Kyron Riley, a criminal trespass warning, which barred him from entering the library for three years.
Undeterred, Riley came back just three months later.
Riley, a registered sex offender, subjected another staff member to the same assault, masturbating in front of her near the children’s section of the Central Library. This time, he was arrested and charged.
Riley was released from jail a few months after his arrest, after he was was deemed incompetent to stand trial.
When residents enter a Fort Worth library, they’re expected to adhere to a standard of conduct called the rules of behavior, which are posted around the building. These rules lay out what behavior is not allowed in the library, and correspond with an internal discipline matrix that tells staff penalties for behavior that breaks the rules.
Some rules carry light consequences, like sleeping in the library. Others, like physically assaulting staff or another patron, can result in multi-year bans. Staff may call the police to report an incident, and depending on the severity of the situation, an officer will issue a criminal trespass warning to the patron.
“It is our responsibility as a city to take care of not just our residents but our employees,” District 9 council member Elizabeth Beck said. The Central Library falls in Beck’s district.
“Everybody deserves a safe and comfortable work environment, whether it’s library staff, transportation public works, or water staff,” Beck said.
If an incident violates the rules of behavior, a staff member is required to fill out an incident report on the department’s SharePoint website. The report is then sent via email to the inbox of library employees. Often, the duty to fill out incident reports falls on the same employee who was assaulted.
“I read all the incident reports. Nine times out of 10 the (patron) complies,” Shorr said.
The reports include a summary of the incident, the name of the patron involved (if known), the date it occurred, the location, and how long the patron is barred from the library. The reports do not include photos of the patron, which makes it difficult to keep banned people out of the library, staff said. Some have resorted to private group messages to keep each other informed.
“We don’t require them to have any type of library card or any information to identify who these people are,” one current librarian said. “We’re not finding out (who they are) until they do something that escalates to the point of exposure or attacking someone when the police become involved.”
The city’s legal department doesn’t allow librarians to take photos of patrons and submit them with the incident report, Shorr said, citing privacy concerns. There are several security cameras inside of the Central Library, but they do not cover every inch of the building.
Employees should rely on each other to share information about suspicious patrons, Shorr said. But that system failed to stop Riley when he came back to the library after being banned.
While incident reports are sent out in a mass email blast to staff, including regional managers and directors, branch employees said management rarely acknowledges them directly. One staff member described crying when they realized no one from management had asked if they were OK after being assaulted.
Library administration checks in on staff if the incident rises to the level of assault, Shorr said. However, librarians have a responsibility to ensure the gravity of the situation is communicated through the incident report, she added.
“There has to be some responsibility on the employee to tell us that they need us. We cannot always be expected to know every time unless it rises to the top,” Shorr said.
In another incident, a patron threw a metal trash can, striking an employee. The same patron had earlier thrown a book at another employee and refused to leave.
The identity of that patron is still unknown, according to incident reports.
From 2017 to 2022, there were 20 police reports of assaults, robbery and altercations against or between patrons.
There were four assaults against librarians, and one report was fully redacted.
The vast majority of internal incident reports are unremarkable, for problems like a patron being too loud or sleeping in the library, Shorr said. She stressed that, of 980,031 visitors to the library system’s 17 locations in fiscal year 2022, only 774 resulted in a staff member filing an incident report.
“It’s more the day-to-day grind, and having to tell the same person over and over and over again, that can wear an employee down,” Shorr said. “And, in that situation, and I said this to staff last week, we have positions in other locations they can apply for.”
The Report requested a copy of incident reports from June 2021 to August 2022 in August, but the city asked for an attorney general’s opinion, arguing the records were exempt from disclosure because they contained patron information. Four months later, the attorney general’s office ruled in favor of the Report, provided that identifying patron information was redacted.
The reports obtained by the Report were pulled from all of Fort Worth’s library branches. From June 2021 to August 2022, staff reported 782 separate incidents across the entire library system.
These included patrons shouting obscenities and threatening staff; punching other patrons; masturbating and using racial slurs. One man, who was banned from library facilities in 2017 for inappropriate behavior toward young girls, was reported again in June 2022 at the Diamond Hill/Jarvis Library in Fort Worth’s Northside community.
The Ella Mae Shamblee Library in the Historic Southside has also been the site of numerous assault reports over the past several years. In 2019, a Shamblee staffer called the police after a homeless patron screamed, cursed and threw a drink at her in the parking lot, according to a police report. The patron later described himself as a ‘Crip,’ a well-known gang, and said he wanted to go to jail.
Two other assault reports at Shamblee, in April and June 2022, were almost fully redacted by police before being released to the Report.
After libraries re-opened following the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of incident reports filed by employees has increased, Shorr said. Additionally, police reports filed in libraries have increased over time, documents obtained by the Report show.
Staff is reaching a breaking point, one employee said.
“I can tell you that it’s taken a toll on so many staff members, especially the ones that deal with the most amount of behavior issues,” a staffer at the Central Library said.
Shorr understands the job can be stressful — but she can’t help if staff don’t speak up.
“I wish they were talking to us. I wish anyone had come to me,” Shorr said.
On Jan. 12, a fight broke out between two patrons in the central library’s computer lab. A patron picked up the rules of behavior sign and smashed it on the ground. Then, the patron proceeded to grab a nearby fire extinguisher, spraying the other patron and the entire computer lab.
The patron was issued a criminal trespass warning and banned from the library for one year. The incident, still frequently referenced by staff, is one example of the type of incident that catches Shorr’s attention, she said.
While current employees have been hesitant to voice concerns publicly, multiple former employees informed management of safety concerns through exit interviews.
Those interviews, a mix of surveys and in-person discussions, offer employees the opportunity to give feedback either anonymously or with their name attached. The Fort Worth Report obtained those interviews through an open records request.
“We need security sometimes at the branches, and it can be very stressful when patrons are harassing you or fighting … Security staff weren’t always suited to the job at Central,” said Melissa Washington, a former Fort Worth librarian, in her exit interview.
New rules of behavior have helped librarians manage patrons better, though, Washington said.
Of the 29 exit interviews obtained by the Report, six mentioned issues with security at library branches — specifically the Central and East Berry branches.
Safety has been ignored in the library for almost two years, an anonymous respondent said in January 2020. The library should establish a safety program and employ a coordinator who can focus on improving safety, the respondent added.
Other former employees described being unprepared to work with the homeless population and a lack of training for managing violent behavior.
Former employee Sydney Peel “was uncomfortable with the amount of attention she received from homeless men — sometimes it didn’t break the Rules of Behavior, but she was always worried that it would escalate,” according to an exit interview. Peel left after only two months.
Library staff receive training from My Health My Resources and the HOPE Unit with the Fort Worth Police Department, Shorr said.
“Every time we do a staff training, we emphasize that they really should get to know these individuals, especially the regulars, long before there’s an infraction and any interaction will go much better,” Shorr said.
No data directly links the presence of homeless people in a library to frequency of assaults, said Maria McCauley, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association.
In addition to consistent training, hiring social workers or working with local organizations to provide them at branches can be impactful, McCauley said.
“I think that, if we asked anyone in the community, they probably know somebody that might have experienced a mental health issue at some point in time,” McCauley said. “And we want to make sure that we’re there for everyone. We want to make sure that the public library is available to everyone regardless of their mental health or whatever their housing situation is.”
Employing social workers has produced positive results at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Library where McCauley works, but she acknowledged that it isn’t a one-size fits all solution. Shorr said she’s worked in libraries with social workers before, but isn’t convinced hiring them is the answer to staff concerns.
“We have a core group of about 20 to 30 people every single day,” Shorr said, referencing people experiencing homelessness. “And a social worker would, in the first couple of hours, run out of people to talk to, and then what? So I don’t see how having a social worker here would solve the issues that staff are identifying as the problem.”
Unarmed, ill-equipped guards
On Feb. 12, an unknown patron said “F—- you” to staff and threatened to cut their heads off. The person wasn’t arrested and left the building, but police later issued a criminal trespass warning banning the patron from coming back.
Unarmed and unequipped security guards are asked to deal with these types of violent threats to staff on a regular basis, multiple staff members told the Report. The city has used four security companies at its libraries since 2019.
A year-long $1 million security contract between the city and National Security and Protective Service Inc. provides the city with armed and unarmed guards for public events, code compliance, parks and recreation, municipal courts, the water department and the library. Of the entire contract, about $70,000 of funding was allocated to unarmed library security.
Before 2020, the security guards employed by the city, Tex 1 Security Inc, were not doing a good job, Shorr said. In 2020, the library tapped Big VI LLC and Premier Protective Services to provide security.
The company was staffed by former law enforcement and did a remarkable job working with patrons and library staff, Shorr said. After the pandemic temporarily closed the library, Premier Protective Services was not available to continue providing security when the building reopened.
In 2021 through 2022, the library contracted with DFW Security Protective Force Boutchantharaj Corp. until Feb. 2022 when a security guard got in a physical fight with a patron, Shorr said.
“It was unacceptable to get into a physical fight with the patrons,” Shorr said.
The management team spent several months looking for a new security firm that better fit the library’s needs. During the interim, a Tarrant County marshal was stationed from June to July at the Central Library but eventually was reassigned.
Now, two unarmed security guards are stationed at the Central Library from Monday to Friday, and one unarmed security guard on the weekends. The guards patrol a 250,000-square-foot building – the only library branch with security guards on site.
“They cannot be everywhere all the time,” Shorr said.
The library was without a hired security team until September. Now, there are once again two security guards always present at the Central Library. But they’re designed to act as backup for librarians, not the first line of defense.
“They’re usually pretty young people in their 20s,” a Central Library staffer told the Report. “No de-escalation skills, no police officer training, no weapons that they can carry. It took a librarian to be sexually assaulted before they brought in marshals. And those marshals only stayed for a few weeks or months but then they were gone.”
Library management meets with a downtown security team, composed of the Fort Worth Police Department’s central division, neighborhood police officers, bike patrol and the Tarrant County Sheriff’s office. Officers from those divisions will periodically patrol the Central Library.
Members of the Downtown Fort Worth Inc. Ambassador Program, which is not a law enforcement agency, also go into the library to offer services to the library’s homeless population, Shorr said. The ambassadors aim to help patrons fill out forms for assistance or find resources related to food and housing.
Still, even if the library were to employ full-time law enforcement officers, librarians are expected to be the first to address behavior that breaks the library’s rules, Shorr said.
“One of the things that I tell staff is that, this is our house, we set the rules and the people who come in need to follow the rules,” Shorr said. “They’re welcome up until the point that they don’t follow the rules. What’s difficult for staff is that they are the first line of defense when the rules are broken. Over time, and I know because I’ve experienced this myself, that can be draining.”
Overstretched library resources
A patron walking into the Central Library during the workday likely will find the sitting area of the library occupied by homeless residents alone or in pairs.
The ground floor of the Central Library is closed to visitors and has been since the library re-opened in 2020. Shorr and the rest of library administration work on the ground floor, directly underneath where patrons typically gather.
“There’s a lot of pain and anger amongst this community (the homeless),” Shorr said. “There’s infighting, there’s relationships and all of it falls on the Central Library staff to manage. Having done that for many, many years, I know and will admit and acknowledge that it’s not an easy gig.”
In Shorr’s view, the issue isn’t the number of homeless patrons who frequent the library but the proportion of those using the library compared with families.
“Libraries don’t have a homelessness issue. Communities have a homelessness issue,” Shorr said.
Fort Worth’s homeless population
Fort Worth has the fifth-largest population of homeless people in Texas compared to the state’s six major metro areas. In 2020, about 10 of every 100,000 people were experiencing homelesness in Fort Worth.
Conversely, the supply of permanent supportive housing in Fort Worth has lagged far behind other cities. Supply increased just 18% between 2010 and 2020. Dallas has increased its supply by 77% in the same time and Austin has increased by 115%.
The city invests around $3 million every fiscal year to Directions Home, the city department that coordinates and funds housing resources. Dallas will invest about $12 million into its Office of Homeless Solutions, which has a similar mission, in 2023.
If staff are having difficulty in their positions, she said, they can apply for other positions either within the library or the city generally.
“I don’t want to lose anyone,” she said. “But working in a Central Library can be difficult, and it’s not for everyone. So if there’s an employee who no longer wants to work in that situation, then we need to know that so we can help move them.”
Shorr hosted an all-staff meeting in the fall for employees to disclose their qualms with library security or their jobs generally, but staffers told the Report they didn’t feel comfortable speaking to her candidly.
“So many of us currently employed have been there for a while,” a staff member said. “We truly love our jobs and are passionate and believe in what libraries stand for and what they could be. But on the flip side of that, we have been in a very dysfunctional, toxic environment for years now.”
National safety concerns
In December 2018, a man who was banned from the Sacramento Public Library shot and killed Amber Clark, a supervisor in one of the area branches. It was Clark who reported the man’s previous aggressive behavior toward staff — and Clark who he targeted in retribution.
“Library leadership wants to protect staff,” Kelly Clark, Amber’s husband, said. “I know they do. They’re not callous to librarians. They’re not oblivious to the dangers that librarians face, but the mission has to go on, the mission of the library has to continue … And that just really puts librarians and library staff in a difficult position.”
Kelly Clark also works as a librarian in Sacramento. His position stays behind the scenes, separated from the public by a locked door — a deliberate choice.
“Public-facing library staff are always on edge,” he said.
Sacramento’s library administration isn’t to blame for Amber’s death, Clark said, and library administrators generally aren’t to blame for violence in their branches.
“One of the difficult situations that I had to really come to terms with is: that for all the stuff we talk about, efforts to make libraries safer through security … none of that would have helped my wife because she was killed in the parking lot,” Clark said.
That’s the conclusion he arrived at after months of reflection. Instead, he said, the blame lies on systems that don’t provide support for the vulnerable and mentally ill.
“There are just scores and scores of folks who are suffering from mental illness and have zero help and they’re just left to their own devices,” Clark said. “It comes up against libraries and their charter to be open and accessible to the public without any kind of restrictions, being one of the last places that you can go in the United States and just be without having to spend money.”
Shorr said providing a space for the homeless population is a part of the Fort Worth Public Library’s charter, too.
“Everyone is welcome, and I will fight to the death for that,” she said. “We are used for our air conditioning, for our heat, for our restrooms. We are a benefit to this population of people.”
That aspect of the library’s mission could be significantly diminished by the recently announced sale of the Central Library. That’s unfortunate, Shorr said, but a necessary result of waning public participation at the central branch.
“It’s safer for them inside than the streets so I don’t take that lightly,” she said. “It’s a very large building to maintain without a lot of people in it, and it’s a lot of staff … but I am very aware that this will take away a service for a small group of people who use it every day.”
In 2023, the library is preparing to expand its collection of books and close the library’s central branch. The plan is to relocate the staff and materials currently housed in the Central Library and establish a much smaller presence downtown, Shorr said.
In this case, staff working at the location would be solely focused on checking out a small collection of books to patrons who request them, Shorr said. She acknowledged the solution likely won’t fully address staff concerns about safety across the library system.
Council member Beck said she’s asked city staff to reimagine some of the library’s functions in the new space, starting with resources for homeless patrons. Often, internet access is the only way to access services now, she said, and the library shouldn’t be discouraging people from taking advantage of what they offer.
“We know that homeless individuals are going to come to our libraries, our public spaces, and every resident of Fort Worth should be afforded the opportunity to enjoy them… So how do we address that?” Beck asked. “What I tasked staff with was when you’re designing this new space, let’s go ahead and be proactive and carve out a space for one of our partners in our homelessness efforts.”
In California, Clark said, there are sentence enhancements for crimes against medical professionals, like nurses, who face violence at work. No such law exists in Texas.
“I think it should be extended to all public servants, anyone who worked for state and local government as a public servant,” Clark said. “There should be an enhancement that makes for a harder prison sentence.”
Librarians across the country continue to grapple with safety issues and search for the best way to address them.
The safety of librarians can be ensured through behavior policies, effective training and enforcement of policies, said McCauley, president of the Public Library Association.
“I think my hope is that policies can ensure that libraries and library techs can fulfill library missions to help people live their very best lives through the provision of library services and programs,” she said.
Fort Worth library staff interviewed, though, say they fear the sale of the Central branch won’t solve the problem at the library systems’ 16 other branches.
“I like helping people find the books and items that they were looking for,” a staffer told the Report. “And I liked programs, doing something like a craft or a game, but now it’s completely different … It has changed a lot. It’s almost like I’m a social worker or something. And I really don’t know how to deal with that.”
Library begins corrective action
Since the Report began its investigation in July, the library has taken several steps to address matters, communications manager Theresa Davis said in a December email. These include working with the city’s risk management department to conduct a security and safety audit of library buildings, and using staff input to revise the rules of behavior in 2023.
“The audit includes evaluating current operations, building access points and layouts, and making recommendations for adjustments as needed,” assistant city manager Jesica McEachern, who oversees the library system, said.
She added that the marshal division and police department are also participating.
“The goal of any safety and security audit is to ensure that city facilities are safe, welcoming places for patrons and staff,” she said.
The city has not yet signed a formal renewal letter with National Security and Protective Service Inc., the city’s security provider, for the next year. The formal letter is in the works, McEachern said, and the city will continue using the company into the new year. That decision comes as council members discussed security in a closed executive session the week before.
“I wish that I can tell you that there is a way to prevent any sort of bad or terrible behavior,” Beck said. “We can’t control for abnormal behavior or one-off behavior, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. But we should have policies and procedures in place to keep our employees safe.”
The Fort Worth library staff who spoke to the Report all emphasized their love for the library’s mission. But for many, love isn’t enough, and they’ve begun looking elsewhere for employment.
“You went to library school to work in a library because you’re passionate about serving others through literacy and education and knowledge,” a staffer said. “But you’re not hiring people to take care of us in that role.”
The records behind this story
During the course of this investigation, the Fort Worth Report submitted five public records requests.
- The first, submitted July 11, sought police incident reports filed at all Fort Worth library branches over several years.
- The second, submitted Aug. 9, sought exit interviews from library employees, human resources complaints filed by library employees, the database of library workers hired from 2015 to present, and the library’s organizational chart.
- The third, submitted Sept. 29, sought a 911 call transcript and audio recording for a report involving a sexual assault at the Central Library.
- The fourth sought all internal incident reports submitted by library employees over the past year. This request was sent to the attorney general’s office, where it sat for four months before being released to the Report.
- The fifth, submitted Oct. 26, sought all incident reports submitted by library employees over the past five years. It is still pending a decision from the attorney general’s office.
In total, the records behind this investigation cost $142.50. We spent six months compiling information, conducting interviews and analyzing data from records requests to produce the final report.
How we analyzed internal incident reports
After receiving a year’s worth of internal incident reports through a Texas Public Information Act request, reporters set to work categorizing these incidents for analysis. We settled on six categories: nuisance (which included things like sleeping, bathing in library restrooms or playing music too loudly), verbal harassment, sexual misconduct, physical violence, threats of violence, and theft.
We then began the process of designating each incident with a category. This involved pouring over nearly 800 individual incident reports and then calculating the percentage each category made up of the total number of incident reports.
The breakdown of categories is as follows:
- Physical violence – 35 (4%)
- Sexual misconduct – 39 (5%)
- Verbal harassment – 74 (9%)
- Threats of violence – 20 (2.5%)
- Nuisance – 606 (77.5%)
- Theft – 8 (1%)
- TOTAL: 782
This reporting was made possible through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.