When law enforcement comes a’knocking

Dear colleagues,

“It will never happen here!”

Isn’t it human nature to believe that tragedies happen “out there,” in the world, and not in our own communities? Sadly, many communities have cause to know that tragedies do indeed happen at home. My own community, Randolph and neighboring Braintree, has just suffered the agony of the disappearance and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett.

I am writing this because “It will never happen here!” also happened at my library.

On June 26, the day after Brooke disappeared, Vermont State Police officers came to Kimball Public Library, where I am director, and asked and then demanded that staff turn over all of our public access computers. At the time, the investigators believed that Brooke had met a predator through MySpace, someone she agreed to meet clandestinely. They theorized that Brooke might have used the Library’s computers, and that they might find vital evidence on the hard drives.

What would you do?

My library’s policy was very clear: we do not turn over information about our patrons to anyone without a court order. Our procedure was also very clear: if law enforcement agents ask for information about our patrons,

  1. refer the agents to our policy,
  2. refer the agents to the director or chair of the board of trustees, and
  3. contact our lawyer.

My staff did exactly what they were trained to do. Despite the increasingly intimidating tactics employed by the State Police officers, staff refused to release the computers without a court order. Meanwhile, the police refused to accede to our clearly stated requirement. That impasse held for an hour and a half. When I arrived at the Library, I affirmed that yes, we did want to help the police find Brooke, and that yes, we would comply with their request to confiscate our computers – when and only when they presented us with a court order. Five hours later, at 11 o’clock at night, I returned to the Library to review the search warrant and turn over the computers.

Why does this matter?

As a public librarian, I affirm that our mission is to provide all of our community members with access to information, and to protect our patrons’ privacy so that they feel free to access the information they want and need. Our public computers are used by hundreds of patrons every month. That means that whatever data resides on the hard drives represents the activity of many, many more people than – possibly – Brooke Bennett.

What can you do to be prepared for “it will never happen here?”

First and foremost, get your policies in order. Thanks to the hard work of the Vermont Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, the privacy of patrons at all types of libraries is now protected under a new state statute that went into effect on July 1. Read the new statute carefully. Make sure that your policies and procedures reflect the changes in the law.

Second, build a relationship with a local attorney. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have access to your town’s attorney; if not, use your connections to find an attorney in your community. Make an appointment and educate him or her about Vermont’s new statute, the USA PATRIOT Act, CIPA, censorship, and the Constitutionally-based professional code that underpin your library’s policies and procedures.

Third, train your staff so they know what to do if and when law enforcement agents come knocking at your library’s door. Believe me: such a visit is extremely stressful for everyone: law enforcement, staff, and patrons. Make it easy for your staff – and you! – to know what to say and what to do.

Fourth, prepare for the media to descend. Decide who, if anyone, on your staff will do the talking, and what he or she will say. Keep control of your message: “We complied with a court order in connection to an investigation.” “State statute compels us to require a court order to release information.” “Our privacy policy was crafted to comply with state law.” “No comment.”

Finally, if you decide to speak to the media, expect hate mail. I don’t say, prepare for hate mail, because there’s no way to be prepared for the truly vile things people are free – thanks to the First Amendment – to write to you. Treasure the letters of support you will also receive.

The following resources are invaluable. Please, use them. Because it has happened here.

Vermont Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee


Vermont library patron confidentiality survey results

ALA | Confidentiality and Coping with Law Enforcement Inquiries

Amy C. Grasmick, Director
Kimball Public Library
67 North Main Street
Randolph, VT 05060