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To keep churches safe, government gets involved

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)

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.

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

“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)

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.”

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.”

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.’”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an award-winning reporter and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

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