Police forces educate clergy, church leaders on public safety

By Tim Alexander For Chronicle Media

Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell and Peoria (City) Police Chief Jerry Mitchell spoke during a training opportunity the departments hosted for around 300 central Illinois church leaders on Jan. 16.

America’s churches are joining schools in providing a soft-target stage for violent acts that more often stem from domestic quarrels than radical religious or political ideologies.

Prior to a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Nov. 5 that claimed 26 lives and injured another 20 individuals, there had been 1,617 deadly force incidents at houses of worship across the U.S. since 1999, resulting in 759 lost lives.

This is according to Kris Moloney, author of “Defending the Flock: A Security Guide for Church Safety Directors,” which was published last year.

A good many of the prevention, preparedness and action recommendations made by Moloney, creator of Sheepdog Church Security, were espoused by Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell and Peoria (City) Police Chief Jerry Mitchell during a training opportunity the departments hosted for around 300 central Illinois church leaders at Peoria’s Northwoods Community Church Jan. 16.

“When you are at church on Sunday, where are you facing? With your back to the door,” said Asbell. “With smaller churches, you sometimes don’t have the means, or the wont, to address security measures. But whether you belong to a small or large church, you have to instill a mindset of caution.”

Clergy and leaders from some 60 area churches attended the meeting, including Fred Krietemeyer, who attends Mossville United Methodist Church in northern Peoria County, where he serves as a trustee.

“The presentation was very eye-opening,” said Krietemeyer, a Vietnam War veteran who noted the similarities between the key elements of the presentation and military-style preparedness. “This is a program that any large group of people, not just churches, should undertake to make their members and meetings more safe. Because of it, we will be in the process of reassessing our security, as will all of the other churches in attendance.”

The Peoria presentation, titled “Mindset, Prevention, Preparedness and Taking Action: Ways to Prepare for an Active Assailant,” was based on law enforcement trained response to active shooter scenarios in schools. The Peoria County Sheriff’s Office currently has seven officers trained in active shooter response, according to Asbell.

“The principles of this training are very similar to what we’ve been pushing out to all of the schools in our county, but modified with a philosophy towards churches. In law enforcement we are naturally suspicious of people, but it’s just the opposite when you look at churches that are in the business of welcoming people,” he said. “But part of our message is to be more cautious, be more aware of your surroundings, and don’t be over trusting.

Asbell and Mitchell’s message boiled down to this: Mindset, plus prevention, preparedness and action, equals success in preparing a church for the worst. According to the veteran law enforcement officers, mindsets such as “it will never happen here,” and “my mind is not prepared for this type of event,” must be abandoned in order to fully prepare congregations for violent intruders in their church’s sanctuary or elsewhere.

Asbell learned as a homicide detective that many church shootings or violent acts can originate from domestic altercations. On Oct. 18, 2009 Asbell investigated a Smithville homicide involving a victim who was seeking refuge within a church when she was attacked.

“A lot of our pastors are involved in marriage counseling,” said Asbell. “They are sometimes involved with people who are very distraught, and sometimes the distraught person’s anger gets focused on the wrong people. It is also public knowledge what time churches hold Sunday school and services.

“Churches are considered soft targets for any potential terrorist activities, but in recent years, the (violent acts) we have seen on a national level have been of more of a domestic nature —  just taken to a higher level.”

Kreitmeyer’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Herath, agrees that distraught individuals going through stressful and transitional life events pose greater danger to church clergy, employees and parishioners than do religious or political extremists.

“We tend to think of these violent acts in terms of a deranged shooter trying to make a political statement, but the truth is there is a lot of domestic violence that happens in the homes and spills over into public places,” said Herath. “Churches are soft targets and tend to stick out more as a target, and we need to know how to handle these situations.”

The quandary church leaders are now facing is this: To leave church and sanctuary doors open to the public as often as possible in order to minister to the masses as per their mandate, or to selectively allow entry, permit concealed-carry for certain church leaders and shutter their facilities to outsiders.

It is a quandary that dozens of church leaders, such as Herath and Krietemeyer, are pondering as they meet to discuss how proactive they wish to be in order to better protect their congregations.

“We’ve tried to keep our doors open so that people can have access and ask for help,” Herath noted, “but there is a fine line there with also providing security and protection for the people that do come in, from those who intend to do harm.”

Asbell said he is firmly in favor of churches locking their doors down tight during services and other scheduled activities and events.

“Being a sheriff and security minded, I have to say yes, lock your doors. If you are not locking them there should at least be some kind of a security team or ushers by the doors, being vigilant in watching who is coming in and out,” he said. “Even if your doors are locked you should have someone standing near the doors during services. Any barrier helps create time and space between the threat and the congregation.

“We’re not trying to scare anyone, but we want everyone to realize that the reality of today’s world is that we all need to be more cautious and aware of our surroundings.”





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