For Dave Robinson, a pastor at Countryside Fellowship Church in Savage, it appears that attacks against places of worship are happening more often, and it makes Robinson and some in his 70-member congregation nervous.
“It could happen anywhere, I’m sure all those people thought ‘it could never happen to us,’ and it did,” Robinson said. “I want concrete ideas for the unthinkable.”
Robinson was among 88 people attending a Thursday night meeting presented by county police offering tips on how to keep their congregations safe, including how to to prepare for and respond to an active shooter situation.
“It’s a rarity,” police Maj. Ellsworth Jones said. “It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s disastrous.”
Three of the most deadly shootings in places of worship in the U.S. occurred in the past 18 months, including a Nov. 5 massacre at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas that left 26 dead.
The Texas shootings spurred Howard police to host meetings for faith leaders.
The department’s first meeting, in December, was immensely popular, according to Cpl. Adrienne Thomas of the Department of Community Outreach. Nearly 140 people attended the first meeting and there was a 30-person waiting list, she said.
Thomas said police want to be “proactive” in helping worshippers feel safe. The police presentation is a combination of institutional knowledge the department has regarding active shooter situations and other threats, and from best practices in law enforcement.
While there has not been a noticeable increase in calls for law enforcement presence at faith centers, Thomas said more congregations are choosing to create security teams made up of members with police or military backgrounds, whether to create security strategies, serve as armed security or simply as an extra set of eyes near entrances during services.
That heightened sense of awareness is the mindset that officers encouraged faith leaders and their security teams to employ, and that if their facility doesn’t have a designated security team, now is the time to create one.
“I don’t want to make anybody paranoid,” Jones said. “But we have to at least have this in our mindset to some degree.”
Officers recommended that houses of worship have a security team designed to lead the facility in drills for disasters, ranging from a fire to an active shooter, and to create an easy-to-use communication system among members to disseminate information quickly.
While officers reviewed what to do in an active shooter situation with the FBI’s recommended, “run, hide, fight,” instructions, their focus was on how to help houses of worship be prepared.
The department does not have an official stance on whether churchgoers with concealed carry licenses should be encouraged to bring their handguns into a facility for protection, that decision Jones said is one faith leaders must make for themselves.
A proposal expected to be debated in the state legislature this year could allow parishioners to bring a gun into a place of worship without a concealed carry license if they have written authorization from the house of worship and a state police-issued handgun qualification license, which allows people to buy or rent a handgun.
Thomas also advertised the department’s free service to walk through facilities with faith leaders to point out vulnerabilities in their buildings.
Following the meeting, Robinson said he felt ready to bring the knowledge he’d learned to his congregation, and wants to create a designated security team at the church. He said he doesn’t want to completely lock down his facility, but does want to better protect his members with increased communication systems and emergency plans. Robinson also said his group plans to discuss whether to allow members to bring guns into church, but that he hasn’t formed an opinion on the issue.
“The last thing you want is a fortress mentality when you’re trying to spread the love of God,” he said.