Undercover Investigation: Overdoses and crime skyrocket at downtown library

Denver's main library is now a hub for crime and drug abuse, resulting in significant spikes in emergency calls for overdoses, fights and sexual assaults.

We don't get a lot of snail mail at 9NEWS anymore, but one well written letter caught our attention. It starts with the line: "the downtown library in crisis". It's from a woman who wanted us to know she loves the library and the people who work there.

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The city’s main library has become a centralized hub for crime and drug abuse, resulting in significant spikes in emergency calls for overdoses, fights and sexual assaults, a 9Wants to Know investigation found.

A review of city records revealed that in the first four months of this year, emergency dispatchers received 44 calls for overdoses at the Denver Public Library’s central branch, located at 10 W. 14th Ave. There were no such calls in that category during the same time frame last year.

Calls about fights and assaults were 350 percent over this same time last year, and 911 calls about trespassing or “unwanted persons” increased 783 percent. Overall, 911 operators have received more than twice as many calls through April 2017 as they did during the same period in 2016.

“It’s a real shame and an embarrassment for the city, really,” said city councilman Wayne New. He represents District 10, which includes the Denver Public Library.

“We’ve got to do a better job, and we have to have a sense of urgency,” New said. “This problem is getting worse.”

UNDERCOVER VIDEO

Reporter Jeremy Jojola spent three days undercover at the library where he used a camera to document people injecting heroin and conducting drug deals in and around the library.

In one video, a security officer is seen walking through an area just outside on the south end of the library. A few minutes later a woman is seen attempting to inject herself with heroin.

In another video, Jojola captured a methamphetamine deal inside the library next to the teen use area.

“Whatcha got there, man? What you got?” Jojola asked the drug dealer while recording the exchange. A white rock substance was captured in a hand-off.

The man told Jojola him it was “Crys” -- or crystal meth.

Jojola also documented liquor bottles in the bathrooms and witnessed multiple other drug deals with children in the vicinity.

“I’m horrified by it. It’s really sad that it’s happening here,” said Denver Librarian Michelle Jeske. “And I’m sad for those people who have that drug addiction at the same time.”

The library maintains its own book of individuals who have been banned from the premises called the “Ban Book.” Page after page show the pictures of men and women who have been caught breaking the law.

Some were seen injecting drugs inside the building. Others were caught starting fights, getting drunk, or even masturbating in the children’s area.

“We are doing everything we can to prevent it,” Jeske said. “But it doesn’t surprise me. In fact… we’ve seen it ourselves.”

EMERGENCY DISPATCH RECORDS REVEAL SPIKE IN CRIME

Calls for service from 911 records also reflect a sharp increase in crime and drug abuse in the Denver library. 

In the first four months of 2017, Denver 911 received 18 calls to the police, fire department and emergency medical services for assaults and fights, up from just four calls during the same time period last year.

Similarly, the calls for sexual assaults at the library increased 83 percent; from six calls in the first four months of 2016 to 11 calls through April of this year.

One of the largest increases in 911 calls was for drug overdoses.

Through April 2017, there have been 44 calls for “overdose/poisoning.” There were zero during the same time last year.

Thus far, the library has increased security and trained security guards on how to use NARCAN, an overdose-reversal drug.

“I recognize in our society, this opioid epidemic is huge. And it’s everywhere.” said Bob Knowles, who is the head of security for the city’s library system.

He’s used NARCAN on someone experiencing an overdose -- one of six times it has been used so far at the library this year.

“I don’t know if I ever thought I’d have to administer it,” Knowles said.

THE HOMELESS "SWEEPS" MOVING PEOPLE INTO THE CITY?

City officials, including councilman Wayne New, believe that part of the reason the library is experiencing an increase in crime and overdoses is because more people are being moved off the streets due to the city’s urban camping ban, or so-called “homeless sweeps.”

“That’s not a solution,” councilman New said. “We all know some kind of housing or emergency housing, transitional housing, must be available to solve this problem.”

“I think that some of the enforcement by the city is definitely responsible for moving people into other spaces,” said Cathy Alderman, spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “I really believe we are at a crisis right now -- with the number of people who are being forced to live on the streets.

“But moving people along and putting them in different places, doesn’t solve the problem.”

Many in the city believe that the library has become a defacto day shelter -- providing services it wasn’t designed to handle.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock declined a request for an interview from 9NEWS, citing logistical reasons.

Instead, the Mayor’s Office deferred to Reggie Huerter, who is the director of the Behavioral Health Strategies.

Huerter said the city working on a number of plans to combat the opioid epidemic in Denver. One plan includes contracting with a an “opioid treatment specialist” who would visit parks and other public places like libraries to help people get help.

“My life actually circulates around this place,” said Marvin Gnad, a homeless man who says he’s currently trying to secure housing. “You know you’ve got bathrooms. The people are nice to you. I mean they don’t treat you like you’re subhuman or something like that. They really care.”

The library has long provided services to homeless individuals, including hiring two full time social workers -- but the increase in crime and drug abuse has caused a shift in the security protocol.

“You’re in a tough spot here. Is this fair for the library to deal with?” 9Wants to Know reporter Jeremy Jojola asked.

“That’s a tough question. Is it fair? I would prefer not to be doing this,” the librarian, Michelle Jeske, said. “Absolutely. I would prefer to be sitting here talking to you about the important work we are doing to help kids enter kindergarten ready to learn and read.”

What are YOUR thoughts about the state of the library? Leave your comments below

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