The renewed focus comes after a rise in complaints about bathroom conditions and a rash of violent and criminal behavior.
On Thursday morning, the mayor spent about an hour and a half touring the Main Library in the heart of the Civic Center, walking in and around the building and meeting with staff. Also along for the tour were department heads — including Lee’s homeless czar, Bevan Dufty, and his chief of staff, Steve Kawa.
Lee wants the library to become what he referred to as a “family and education zone.”
The effort comes after years of library officials having attempted to address the challenges of unruly patrons only to face an increase in complaints in recent months. In fiscal year 2011-12, 4,412 incidents were recorded, ranging from assaults to drug use.
The mayor also sent a letter Thursday to the Library Commission outlining his strategy to make the library a more welcoming destination.
“My overall goal is to make sure we prevent unacceptable behavior in our library before it happens,” the mayor said. To that end, he recommended that the seven-member commission, which he appoints, impose “stronger penalties for violations” of the patron-use guidelines.
The new penalties, he said, should “focus on first immediately removing the person exhibiting problematic behavior, and then issuing and enforcing longer suspensions to discourage future bad behavior.”
The crimes Lee singled out for increased penalties include indecent exposure, simple assault on library staff and patrons, possession of weapons, being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, making disruptive noise and vandalism of library property.
Last year, library officials suspended 295 patrons in the Main Library and 27 branch libraries. Suspensions would likely increase under Lee’s zero-tolerance policy, at least early on. The new rules and stronger police enforcement “will have their intended impact on restoring the library’s place as a destination for parents and children,” Lee wrote to the commission.
Police Chief Greg Suhr said a series of incidents led to the recent attention, including drug use and sex in the bathroom, someone being hit by a chair, a person bringing in an oversize bag that was infested with fleas and someone urinating on a book shelf.
“The sum total of all of it was just begging for a reasonable modicum of decorum,” Suhr said.
With children’s programs and a playground across the street, Suhr said, the Main Library is legally a drug-free zone. But without signage, it’s not enforced as such.
Signs will be posted within weeks, which he said would make a difference.
One immediate change that happened Thursday was placing the entire library premises under the jurisdiction of the Tenderloin Police Station, instead of under two different stations that responded to incidents depending on their locations.
City Librarian Luis Herrera was supportive of the mayor’s suggestions, while noting that overall problem incidents were declining.
“We have 5,000 people coming into the Main Library every day,” Herrera said. “Ninety-nine percent of folks use it for such diverse uses. We want to continue to get the word out that this is a very welcoming environment.”
Lee said the library “suffers from a small number of people who create disturbances and commit crimes, tarnishing the experience for everyone else.”