Has it come to this?

Published 11:48 am Wednesday, November 22, 2017

In mass shootings’ wake, churches eye security

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

In the wake of the mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas earlier this month, which left 26 parishioners dead and many more wounded, churches around the country have been questioning the security and safety of their own congregations.

Places of worship in Isle of Wight have been no exception.

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“There’s a lot of concern,” said Jeff Cannon, lead pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Smithfield.

Approached by congregation members with concerns following the tragedy in the small Texas church Nov. 5, Cannon sent out a letter out to his congregation, notifying them of prevention measures Trinity plans to take, including retraining ushers to be on the look-out for emergency situations and reviewing procedures for locking the church’s doors during worship. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“It is so sad that the one sacred place is now a killing field,” one congregation member wrote on the church’s Facebook page in response to the letter.

Another measure the church has taken, according to Cannon, is having a security review performed by the Smithfield Police, a free service offered by the department to local residents, businesses and organizations.

A certified crime prevention organization, security assessments and advice are a key service provided by the Smithfield Police Department, according to Smithfield Crime Prevention Specialist Kurt Beach.

In late September, before the Texas shooting flung church security into the national spotlight, Main Street Baptist in Smithfield hosted a security and safety training session for law enforcement and faith-based communities, sponsored by Criminal Justice Services. The event featured presentations on how to prevent and handle violent situations in places of worship.

Prior to the Texas shooting, there was the shooting death of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 by a man wanting to start a race war, and in September, another man killed one person and wounded seven others in a Tennessee church, according to news reports. And last week, a man accidently shot himself and his wife at church after a discussion on gun safety, according to the Washington Post.

Beach, who helped to facilitate the event at Main Street, said that while shootings like the tragedy that occurred in Texas are exceedingly rare, there are measures that can and should be taken to keep churches safe, most of them simply being a matter of vigilance and commonsense.

For instance, should someone unfamiliar to the congregation enter the Sunday service with a backpack, it might spark some notice. Should such a case arise, Beach recommends something he refers to as “verbal judo.” This includes simply approaching the individual, welcoming them and asking questions to make sure everything is alright with them and gauge for any threat.

This allows the church to still be welcoming to outsiders, while remaining on the lookout for any strange or alarming behavior, according to Beach, a balancing act many churches strive to achieve.

Robbery is statistically the most common crime committed in churches, according to Beach, and those with an intent to rob will most likely leave when noticed and engaged by church members, their cover blown.

Domestic spillover is the second most common crime situation to erupt in faith-based communities, according to Beach, a causation which has been widely reported as the motive of Texas gunman Devin Patrick Kelley when he attacked First Baptist, where his former in-laws attended.

Beach said one of the best things a church can do is utilize its ushers, trustees or deacons, who often aid in helping people in and out of cars in the parking lot, or welcome them at the door.

“At the same time, they can be looking at the parking lot to see if there’s something unusual” and extend the church’s boundaries, said Beach.

Something suspicious could be a previously unseen truck parked near the entryway, the driver not getting out.

“You kind of keep your eye on it, you don’t turn your back on it,” Beach advised.

He said that such precautions might not have been able to prevent a killer such as Kelley, who was well armed and clad in military gear, “but there could have been some heads-up before he got into the church.”

Beach said the training provided by the Criminal Justice Services to church communities in no way encourages congregations to arm themselves, however.

“That could lead to even more issues, quite honestly,” he said.

Security assessments by the Smithfield Police Department often include suggestions such as implementing cameras, additional lighting or removing shrubs to increase visibility, according to Beach.

A total of eight churches in the area have already undergone the assessment, according to Beach.

“We’re ahead of the game,” he said.

Out of all the residences, businesses and organizations the police department assesses, Beach estimates that about 50 percent actually follow through with the suggested improvements, as additional security often comes with additional costs.

Churches are often considered safe spaces, and many enjoy a lack of crime for long periods of time. Beach said this can often lead to congregations falling into a state of complacency.

He said he will often hear the same excuse from people in the town who do not take precautionary measures, the excuse being that they ‘live in Smithfield.’ The citizens who live in Sutherland Springs, a rural area with a population of about 362, likely thought the same thing, said Beach.

Still, it is not about being fearful, it’s just about being prepared, Beach said.

“We live in a different time now,” said Beach. “This doesn’t just involve people who go to church. It’s everybody.”

To schedule a free security assessment, call the Smithfield Police Department at 357-3247.  {/mprestriction}