By the end of the year, Charleston County Public Library visitors can expect to see new a new addition at their local branches — armed guards.
The guards, officially called “library resource officers,” will have a presence at each of the county's 17 public library branches.
Eight branches already have unarmed security staff in place, according to Executive Director Angela Craig. The shift to armed security was not prompted by a specific incident, although a library staff member was assaulted by a visitor in November last year, she said.
“That was a watershed moment for us," Craig said. "We were very lucky that nothing happened to the staff member.”
The incident occurred after the employee at the main branch on Calhoun Street approached a disgruntled visitor and asked them to leave the building.
The library features a recording studio and teen gaming lounge.
“It was jarring because it was a seasoned staff member that had been around for 20 years, and they did a normal thing that we’ve all done,” Craig said.
According to Craig, these types of aggravated incidents are extremely rare. The shift to armed guards was made mostly in an effort to reduce the turnover rate among security staff.
“Unfortunately, the turnover was getting to the point where we couldn’t see the consistency that we needed, and we couldn’t get the customer service that we wanted,” she said.
Craig said that low-paid, unarmed guards often worked only one or two months before leaving. The armed guards, who will be paid more since they have a higher level of training, are expected to remain in their positions longer and make more meaningful connections with library guests.
The change will cost more than $123,000. The library system plans to spend $551,132 on security in the 2019-20 fiscal year, about 2 percent of its total budget.
Craig said she doesn’t know how many armed officers the library will employ but hopes it will match the current 10-member team of unarmed staff. She said she also hopes they will be in place by year's end.
But some remain skeptical of the planned change. Agnes Pomata, a retired circulation desk clerk who worked in the county public library system for more than 10 years, worried that the presence of armed security might create more problems than it solves.
“It goes against everything that I know and have been trained about controlling a situation, about diffusing a situation," Pomata told The Post and Courier. "So why a gun? There’s no sense to it.”
Pomata said security staff at libraries is needed especially after school and around closing time but that the presence of guns is unnecessary.
"We would have teenagers that would come in and get too loud and be a little too belligerent," she said. "That's the kind of thing the officer needs to know how to diffuse. And not with a weapon."
But in an era when safety measures in public spaces have increased, Craig said she wants libraries to be prepared.
“I really wish we didn’t have to have resource officers, but I’d rather have them and never need them then need them and not have them," Craig said.
She said ultimately, the decision to add armed staff is independent from the mass shootings that have happened nationally over the past few weeks.
A look at what Charleston area schools are doing to prepare for a mass shooting. They're doing a lot, from new hires to new training to new equipment.
Craig said the resource officers would use their weapon only as a last resort and will be trained in de-escalation procedures. She said she hopes that library patrons won’t notice any significant shift with the new staff.
“Their job is to be discreet," she said. "Their job is to support the library staff and watch and check in with patrons to make sure that everything is running smoothly.”
The new staff will be modeled after school resource officers. They won’t be heavily armed, and they will be wearing a more approachable uniform than other security guards. They will patrol the entire library instead of remaining at the main entrance.
“We’re very aware that this is new, and there will be training involved for the staff so that it’s seamless and patrons won’t feel a disruption of service or a disruption of their environment,” Craig said.
The library system has taken other steps to increase security, including the installation of security cameras at 16 branches and de-escalation training for all staff.
The full-time resource officers will rotate in shifts across the branches and will be hired and trained through Walden Security, a private security firm based in Tennessee.