‘Everyone is equal:’ Winnipeg library security guards offer community-first approach

It’s not your traditional security guard tool, but a cup of coffee comes in handy during Landa Rispler’s shifts as a community safety host at the St. Boniface Library.

“I had one situation where I think he was just trying to charge his phone in the front doorway but he fell asleep there,” said Rispler.

“I just went there to see if he was OK. He seemed a bit distorted, so I asked if he wanted a drink and let him know he could come in here to charge his phone. Then I gave him a coffee.”

Rispler, a Manitoba-certified security guard, has more than 170 hours of training in trauma-related crisis work and harm reduction. She’s part of a new, four-month pilot project involving community groups such as Fearless R2W and the City of Winnipeg to bring a human-first approach to library security.

Three people patrol the St. Boniface and St. John’s Library to keep everyone safe, and help anyone who might be in crisis or who needs resources.

“If there’s someone in the library who happens to be hungry or just need somewhere warm to go, me forcing them to leave isn’t really helping the community,” Rispler said.

“If I can support them or give them a granola bar or something to drink or give them some warmth, I think that’s more supportive than just telling them to leave.”

Fearless R2W raised the money for this project through contributions by the province, the federal government and community groups. The Winnipeg Public Library Board put up $15,000 for the program.

2019 security measures at the Millennium Library where security guards search bags of library patrons and use metal-detecting wands. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Winnipeg libraries faced violence in the past, so in 2019, the Millennium Library brought in airport-style screening and mandatory bag checks. The security ramp up saw immediate backlash. City staff say Fearless R2W approached them to collaborate on a more inclusive approach.

“Some of the issues that made us go the route of screening are still there,” said Theresa Lomas, who oversees 18 branch libraries for the City of Winnipeg.

“We need to look at alternate ways of ensuring safety, but not something as harsh as security screening because I think we alienated quite a few people.”

Theresa Lomas, administrative co-ordinator of branch services for the City of Winnipeg, says staff applaud the community-first approach for library security. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

Julien Malik is training to be the third community safety host. They love books, and says they used libraries as a place to warm up and rest before. Malik says it’s important for security guards to explain to people why they might not be allowed to stay for long periods of time, instead of simply rushing people out the door.

“Telling them what they did wrong means they don’t do it in the future,” said Malik. “If they do, we can talk and ask what can we do to help and make you understand all this? Because everyone is equal in this world. We just sometimes forget.”

Julien Malik is training to become the third community safety host for Winnipeg’s libraries. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

The pilot ends next month, but community partners are pushing to keep it going and possibly expand it to areas such as shelters.

Rispler wants to see that happen. She worked in fast food chains before this, and said this job combines her love for her community and her dream of being a security guard.

“It actually gives me a sense of purpose. It makes me feel uplifted,” she said. “It makes me feel kind of important.”

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