Northland News

Case in Point

Take steps to keep your place of worship safe

By HARRY W. TROMBITAS
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How could an act of violence occur at a place of worship?

Unfortunately, all you have to do is search the Internet and you will find many examples of violence at worship centers:

* On Aug. 5, 2012, a mass shooting took place at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., with a gunman, Wade Michael Page, killing six people and wounding four others.

* On March 8, 2009, Terry Sedlacek shot and killed pastor Fred Winters in front of his congregation at First Baptist Church of Maryville, Ill.

* On July 27, 2008, Jim David Adkisson entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville and fired a shotgun at members of the congregation during a youth performance of a musical, killing two people and wounding seven others.

* On May 21, 2006, Anthony Bell killed four of his in-laws during a church service at the Ministry of Jesus Christ Church in Baton Rouge, La. He abducted his wife and killed her.

The list continues and is far too long. Suffice it to say, places of worship are not exempt from the daily violence in America.

Places of worship are a microcosm of society: All of the criminal acts that occur on our streets and in our homes do in fact happen at worship centers, including murder, rape, robbery, assault, property crimes and unthinkable crimes against children. Although violence is a small percentage of crime-related issues facing our places of worship, it captures the most attention.

Although not every act of violence can be prevented, statistics show people who act out violently at worship centers usually have some relationship or connection to them.

As in most school shootings, people who commit violence at places of worship don't just "snap" one day and start hurting people. They typically begin a walk down the "pathway to violence" when there is some initial triggering injustice committed by the worship center as a whole or by one of its members.

It progresses to the formation of a plan to get even with the worship center and/or a member and obtaining of a weapon or weapons to inflict maximum harm. The final step is the implementation of the plan and resulting act of violence.

The good news, if there is such a thing in these cases, is that there usually is time between the perceived grievance and the act of violence to recognize the escalation of behaviors and become aware of the potential threat and take appropriate steps to possibly prevent the act of violence.

So what are we to do?

Now is the time for action. You won't be judged by whether an incident occurs at your place of worship but rather by whether you took reasonable precautions to discourage it from happening and how the crisis is handled. Has the lack of a serious incident at your place of worship been a result of proactive safety and security measures, or have you just been lucky?

Here are five steps to keep your place of worship safe and secure:

* Create a safety and security team. This is a team of worship-center members who may come from a variety of backgrounds, yet have one thing in common: a passion for serving their god in the ministry of safety and security. The safety and security team's mission is to help create a culture of safety and security in everything the worship center does, both on-site and off. With this said, team members should recognize their limitations and ask for help from third-party experts and local law enforcement agencies whenever appropriate.

* Conduct an assessment of the property, facility, policies and procedures and training capabilities at your place of worship. If the safety and security team identifies security deficiencies, it should prioritize the areas of concern and set out to make the place of worship more safe and secure. The team likely will recognize opportunities to improve the safety and security and implement corrective actions that have an immediate positive impact. The team may choose to work with local experts on more technical mitigation action items such as security technology design and installation or specialized training and policy and procedure development.

* Develop and implement security-related education and training for staff members and the general congregation. Work with local security training companies, nonprofit organizations, fire departments or law enforcement agencies to offer training such as first aid, CPR, fire safety, active shooter response and emergency preparedness. The more people at a place of worship who have basic training in these areas, the more likely there will be someone around to prevent, mitigate or respond to an emergency.

* Establish policies, procedures and protocols for your worship center staff to follow in cases of emergencies such as fire, medical, weather, active shooter and verbal and physical disturbances. Don't forget to include policies and procedures on how to handle indigent persons, security of money and valuables, opening and closing operations, special events or off-site functions and, most importantly, policies related to those who come in contact with children. Hold staff members accountable for adhering to these policies, procedures and protocols.

* Focus on making your place of worship less vulnerable by evaluating potential threats as soon as they come to your attention. All personnel should be trained to immediately report all threats, whether they are received by telephone, in person, by mail or via email. Immediately reporting the concern will allow the safety and security team to evaluate the viability of the threat, notify local officials if appropriate and implement the necessary steps to mitigate the threat. The safety and security team and worship center staff members should feel comfortable working with outside professionals, such as local threat assessment experts, law enforcement and mental health officials, to ensure all threats are given the appropriate amount of attention they deserve. Never underestimate a threat: Act as though your life or the life of a loved one depends on your response.

Harry W. Trombitas is a retired special agent for the FBI. He currently is a senior consultant for Armada, a security consulting company, in Powell.

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