Clare Bowen looks through the craft book selection on the second floor of the Santa Monica Main Branch Public Library on Thursday afternoon. Long time users of the Library system like Bowen will be able to feel secure while they travel through the book isles now that the new security law has been passed. (photo by Brandon Wise)

MAIN LIBRARY — The next time you visit one of Santa Monica’s libraries, you better be on your best behavior because if you become a nuisance and continually break the rules, you could find yourself banned.

Librarians will soon have the power to ban unruly patrons for up to a year following a decision by the City Council Tuesday to expand penalties for those who can’t follow the rules. Santa Monica joins a host of other cities that allow librarians to ban those people who become disruptive. It’s a tool that City Librarian Greg Mullen hopes he doesn’t have to use often, but one that is necessary to keep the peace.

“Our goal is to allow everyone to come in and use the library,” Mullen said. “Our rules are pretty straight forward and out of the million-and-a-half people who visit our libraries every year, there is only a small percentage of people who cause problems and create disturbances. There’s an even smaller percentage who we have to tell to leave or ban.”

The council also granted Mullen and his staff the ability to suspend borrowing privileges indefinitely until a customer pays outstanding fines and fees, or returns overdue books and other materials.

There is an appeals process for anyone banned from the library.

Before the change, Mullen said library staff could only ask a person to leave for the day or suspend their borrowing privileges for a short period of time. But a visitor who has been told to leave could return the next day and cause another disruption. Someone who refused to leave could be charged with a misdemeanor, but Mullen said that is rarely if ever done.

He said five to 10 people are asked to leave one of the city’s libraries each day because they break the rules. During 2010, security at the libraries documented 278 incidents in which the police were called. Eleven of these visitor’s behavior was so extreme that library staff suspended their borrowing privileges, typically for 30 days. The disruptive behavior included fighting, verbal assaults, overturning furniture, threats to library staff or fellow patrons, hacking into public computers and throwing objects.

Several of those people returned to the library even though they could not check out books or use the computers to surf the Internet.

Mullen said the Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley public libraries have bans of 1 year.

Controlling unruly behavior at local libraries has been an issue in recent years given the large number of mentally ill homeless people who congregate at the branches during the day. While many follow the rules, there are others who get violent.

In 2006, Ocean Park Branch Librarian Celia Carroll was assaulted by a homeless man after she confronted him about his disruptive behavior. At the time of her attack, Carroll called on the City Council to pay for a security guard at the library branch to patrol before it opened and after it closed so that staff would be protected.

In June of last year, librarians had to dispose of roughly 150 books covering such topics as Greek literature and history after a patron spread human feces on the materials. The loss was estimated at $5,000.

Library Services Officer Honorio Bala, who has worked in that capacity for over 10 years, said it’s not just the mentally ill. There are increasing numbers of visitors who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

“The library has become a meeting place for a lot of folks, or a place where they can come and hang out because they have no other place to go,” Bala said. “When it gets crowded, tensions are really high, especially on Friday, Saturday and Sunday when the hours are truncated. There’s a definite frustration by people wanting to use the computers. People get into arguments.”

Bala said the ban will go a long way in controlling those few individuals who can’t behave.

The cost of posting the new rules is expected to be $500, according to a city staff report. The council must hold a second reading and the ordinance will become effective 30 days after that.

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