ASSOCIATES (2009, July, v. 16, no. 1)


Safety, Security and Common Sense: Staying Safe on Campus

Jill M. Baker
Information Resources Assistant Intermediate
The Law Library, Circulation Department
University of Michigan

Like most libraries, the University of Michigan Law Library has had its share of problem patrons. I’m not talking about the patrons that talk too loudly, repeatedly smuggle in food or write in books. I’m talking about the patrons who harass staff or other patrons, act suspicious or seem threatening. What can be done about these patrons? How should one handle these types of situations?

Both staff and student workers at the Law Library recently attended a safety and security presentation given by our campus police liaison, Officer David Dupuis, who spoke about how to handle an escalating patron; when to call the Department of Public Safety (DPS); personal safety; and the types of information you should obtain before you call DPS (patron description, etc.). This presentation was arranged following a number of encounters with a particular problem patron who had been entering private offices, interrupting law students who were trying to study, asking our circulation desk workers for reference assistance (which, of course, they are not trained to do), invading people’s personal space, etc. He did seem to be doing legal research, so he appeared to have a legitimate reason to use the library, but his behavior was becoming increasingly inappropriate. With the aid of DPS, we eventually discovered that the man has a criminal history and had previously been prohibited from being on campus; the Law Library was then able to ask him officially to not return. He has since been arrested for stalking an employee at another university department.

While the Law Library provides basic security training for all staff and students, it seemed clear that we needed something more in depth, so Officer Dupuis was invited to give his presentation. His first suggestion was that whenever you think something doesn’t feel right, that someone seems out of place or they are asking odd questions, call DPS. In other words, listen to your intuition and don’t feel like you are bothering the safety department; that’s what they are there for! Call them!

Second, Officer Dupuis stressed the importance of getting a good description of the suspicious person. Male or female? What were they wearing? Did the person have facial hair? How tall were they? What about ethnicity? Hair color?

You might be wondering what constitutes suspicious behavior. Some examples include asking inappropriate questions; wandering around; checking doors to see if they are unlocked; and carrying an empty back pack. Again, listen to your intuition and let it be your guide. It is better to be overly cautions than to do nothing.

Moreover, said Officer Dupuis, if you are dealing with an agitated patron, remember ESP: Empathize, Sympathize and Prioritize. Tell them you understand (“I understand that you are angry and frustrated”) and sympathize with them (“I’m sorry that I’m not able to help you”) and then prioritize: if you can’t help the patron, find someone else who can or offer to contact them when you have an answer. Hopefully these steps will help to deescalate the situation.

Regarding body language, Officer Dupuis said to be mindful of both theirs and yours. Signs of agitation include rapid breathing, clenched fists, touching their hair, and a red face. Also, you should be sure to act confidently: stand erect and look them in the eye. If the person is getting loud, lower your voice as you talk to them and they will likely do the same.

Other tips that the officer suggested were to know your room number so responding officers know where to find you. Also, be aware of exits so you have a safe way to leave the building or area if necessary. Keep the number for campus police programmed in your cell phone and know the location of emergency phones that have a direct line to the Department of Public Safety.

During the presentation, student workers were also encouraged to use a free taxi service offered by the Law Library. If students are closing the library at midnight and they don’t have a car or someone to walk or ride home with, they may arrange for a ride through a taxi company that we have an account with. The student simply calls the cab company approximately forty five minutes before the end of their shift and gives them the following information:

I am calling for a taxi from the Law Library. At 12:05 I will be at 801 Monroe Street which is the loading dock entrance of the Legal Research Building. I need to go (address). Charges are to be made to the Law Library/Legal Research account.

The student then makes an entry on the Taxi Log sheet that is kept at the circulation desk so staff knows the service has been used. We instruct our students to have the phone number of the cab company programmed into their cell phones in case the driver is late. We have also authorized our students to tip the driver 15%.

In addition, the University of Michigan has a Safe Walk service that will escort students on foot or drive them to their destination within a twenty minute walk or one mile drive from campus. The “walkers” are uniformed and easy to identify. This service, however, is only available in the fall and winter semesters.

In conclusion, most libraries are safe places to be. On occasion, however, staff and/or patrons have encounters with difficult or suspicious patrons. Knowing beforehand what to do and who to call is good common sense.