Flags mark evidence on the lawn of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2017, a day after over 20 people died in a mass shooting. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

To keep churches safe, government gets involved

TAUNTON, Mass. (RNS) —  Two months after the deadliest church shooting in American history, federal authorities are spearheading new efforts to help equip local faith leaders to prepare for the worst.

U.S. attorneys’ offices in Colorado, North Carolina and Massachusetts have been convening security workshops for houses of worship in the wake of the Nov. 5 shooting that left more than two dozen worshippers dead in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

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The Colorado initiative builds on past efforts to reach faith leaders, while four regional events across Massachusetts this winter mark a new initiative in that state.


READ: The glue that kept Sutherland Springs together before and after the shootings


Though not a national campaign, the outreach reflects a Trump administration priority to get government more involved in anti-terrorism training for civil society, observers say. The faith-based sector is a priority because data show religious institutions are the most common terrorism targets in the U.S.

Response has been strong. More than 300 attendees turned out for a Jan. 11 event in Taunton, Mass., where representatives from federal, state and local agencies covered active shooter threats among other scenarios.

Pastor Richard Reid regularly checks the security camera system at North Baptist Church in Brockton, Mass. The system emails him when there is activity or every 30 minutes. This system is in addition to a comprehensive ADT alarm system. Photo courtesy of North Baptist Church


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“I’m not taking a chance on anybody in our congregation getting injured or killed,” said workshop attendee Richard Reid, pastor of North Baptist Church in nearby Brockton, Mass.

“My job as the shepherd of the church is to protect the flock. And I will do so with whatever means I need.”

The workshops underscore a sobering reality: Religious institutions can be easy targets and relatively frequent ones. In 2015 and 2016, 38 percent of all terrorist attacks in the United States were strikes on religious figures or institutions, according to data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. That’s 38 attacks over two years (15 in 2015 and 23 in 2016) and more than any other sector experienced, including governments. (Data for 2017 is not yet available.)

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office learned that houses of worship could benefit from a greater understanding about how to handle an active threat or public safety crises,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling in an email. “There was a need for education around how to develop contingency plans for emergencies and what to expect from law enforcement during emergencies.”

Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt Jr. walks past the front doors where bullet holes were marked by police at the First Baptist Church, on Nov. 7, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip; caption amended by RNS)


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Since the Sutherland Springs massacre, congregations nationwide have been taking steps to increase security, according to Cheryl Kryshak, vice president of risk control for Church Mutual Insurance, the largest insurer of religious institutions in the U.S. Security training firms report a surge in demand from faith communities since the Texas attack; congregations now wait as long as a year for private training events.

Forging partnerships with law enforcement is often part of heightening vigilance, Kryshak said in an email, along with creating church security teams.

In tightening security, North Baptist Church in Brockton has been no exception. Since November, ushers have been locking all doors as soon as worship begins. A laptop in the pulpit enables Reid to see throughout the building and outside via 15 security cameras. If the doorbell rings during worship, Reid can see who’s there and alerts security if he spots a threat.

But in-house security goes only so far at North Baptist, where conservative stances on social issues have made the church a target for verbal attacks, Reid said. Should a physical attack ever occur inside the church, the security team would immediately dial 911 and wait for police to arrive, he said.

“My phone is on the pulpit, ready to rumble,” Reid said. “The closer we can work with the authorities, the better off we’ll be in the long run.”

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What’s emerging in Massachusetts is likely a pilot ripe for replication in other states under the administration of President Trump, according to Peter Weinberger, senior researcher in countering violent extremism at the START center.

“With the Obama administration, there was a role for law enforcement, but it certainly wasn’t as active as it is today,” Weinberger said. “The Trump administration is now looking for robust partnerships (with religious institutions). They want really close coordination.”

Weinberger sees this new degree of collaboration playing out in Massachusetts. While the Obama administration largely left disaster training to religious organizations and their private consultants, the Trump administration wants law enforcement involved up front in training as well as incident response. That means faith leaders are coached to focus on what the law requires, including in situations where faith community members are behaving suspiciously.

Weinberger said he’s heard concerns suggesting faith leaders are being compelled to surveil and report on their own communities. But he’s not persuaded by those arguments or by notions that closer partnerships are inherently problematic.

Faith leaders “want to know, ‘What happens if we know that (some in the congregation) are online with extremist groups?'” Weinberger said. “'What do I tell members of my community if they approach me in confidence? What are my obligations legally and ethically?' It’s helpful to have law enforcement involved in that.”

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Outside the Taunton workshop, which was closed to news media, faith leaders said they were seeking authorities’ guidance on security issues that have stymied their communities.

“Our security team is split,” said Mark Oliver, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Brockton, during a lunch break at Subway. “One group believes they should be bearing weapons. The other half says, ‘No, we don’t want that. We don’t want that message being sent out there.’”

One local police panelist advised against having weapons in worship, Oliver said. The FBI declines to give advice on concealed carry practices, according to FBI Boston Division spokesperson Kristen Setera.

Attendees said they received other practical guidance, for example: Be alert for unusual behaviors that could be risk indicators, such as an unfamiliar worshipper who arrives on a hot day in a heavy overcoat drenched in sweat.


READ: Could it happen here? How churches are preparing for a mass shooting


“The outreach right now is to try to establish communication with these different congregations and connect to ensure public safety,” said Mark Camillo, a former U.S. Secret Service agent and security expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

As agencies build trust at in-person sessions, he said, they’re apt to get more tips from religious communities.

“What your authorities hope would happen,” Camillo said, “is that somebody with a strong moral compass is going to say, ‘Hey, I’m hearing this, and I normally wouldn’t know where to go with it, but now I have a contact to bring the attention that’s needed.’”

Comments

  1. Somehow much of this is similar to what mosques have been doing in terms of vigilance as to radicalization. But it does seem backwards to have church folks as the countermeasure against gun violence..

  2. But churches definitely should not suggest controlling who has access to guns, do not consider lobbying for limits on assault weapons with huge capacity and it would be inappropriate for mentally ill people not to obtain guns…

    No, far better to arm your pastors and church goers…and look out for those people in overcoats like the article suggests. Oh yes, and “thoughts and prayers” always work too.

    /s 🙂

  3. If Christian beliefs were genuinely ‘sincerely held,’ I would have expected the headline for this article to read, “To keep churches safe, government God gets involved.” Obviously, the abandonment of the old cliche, “In God We Trust,” is long overdue.

  4. Good article. We do need to be alert to the dangers to church at worship particularly. Thank goodness you are not suggesting guns! My only fear is that the government could get carried away with their help. Separation of church and state is primary to who we are. Thanks for your work. Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com

  5. “…even with the steady rise of shootings and hate crimes, spiritual sanctuaries remain among the more secure spots to spend a Sunday morning.” From a November 2017 CNN article following the Sutherland Springs Church shooting. https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/06/us/church-shootings-truth/index.html
    If you want to call it terrorism, then you must call it domestic terrorism as in most cases the perpetrator is a citizen with a direct connection to the congregation or its members. Statistically speaking you have a better chance of being hit by lightening than killed in a church. There were more incidents of terrorism in the 1970’s than today. Why are we are being encouraged to live in constant (but unreasonable) fear?

  6. I agree that we can’t live in constant fear, but were the domestic terrorist incidents in the 70s as deadly as they are today?

  7. What does it matter if there are seven or thirty victims, no one wants to volunteer to be a victim. This risk is really no greater now than in the 70’s, but that’s not how we feel.
    As a police chaplain back in the 90’s I remember sitting in a lecture at the academy in which we were told there were an average of 200 bombings a year. I was shocked; I had no idea. Most were simple murder attempts or MacGyver bombs made by reckless young men. But the nation was not really aware of all that. Now, even though the risk is tiny, we are all made to feel as if it could happen to us, in our local church, any Sunday. We are being played by the media and the other powers that be. It’s fear used as a means of control. And they cheer as we willing lock ourselves into our fortress churches, and keep out noses out of what’s really going on outside.

  8. The gun culture that has come from your Second Amendment is a Moloch, eating up more and more victims. How many more will die before Americans begin to question this part of the Constitution?

  9. It’s great to see this voice of sanity amid the constant fearmongering and chicken little approach to shootings. Your point about the statistics is exactly right. Mass shootings at churches account for an average of 10 or fewer deaths a year. Compared to nearly any other cause of death for churchgoers, this is vanishingly small. For instance, the flu kills 10,000 to 40,000 people each year, making every churchgoer more than 1,000 times as likely to die from the flu – yet we see no media circus hype over pastor attending conferences to tell them how to make sure everyone gets their flu shot (which would be 1,000 times more sensible). You are exactly right – it’s fear being used as a means of control (and profit! – check out the millions being raked in by so called “church security” companies, church mutual insurance promotes, and profits from, the hype too). Comparing other causes of death shows the same thing. A little math shows that even if you *wanted* to be killed in a church shooting, and went to church after church waiting for the shots to ring out, you’d be waiting for literally thousands of years on average.

  10. Somehow, I don’t think certain churches in SC and TX (not to mention certain schools and big-name hotels in other states), really care about reassuring in-depth statistical averages anymore.

    (Real life appears to have changed their views to some degree.)

    Churches and clergy have a simple choice: Do a major, in-house, decision-making conversation about “What If The Guy Starts Shooting At Us” before something goes down — or else do the same conversation AFTER something goes down.

  11. Lightning strikes more people than are killed in church mass shootings. Your comment is as realistic as:
    Churches and clergy have a simple choice: Do a major, in-house, decision-making conversation about “What If a thunderstorm approaches? Will we call off church?
    Will we usher everyone into the downstairs and keep people away from the parking lot?” before lighting strikes — or else do the same conversation AFTER lightning strikes someone.

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