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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, September 28, 2017 1:00 am

At houses of worship, attacks spur security

Associated Press

When a masked gunman killed a woman and wounded six people at a Tennessee church last weekend, it drew national attention – as did the 2015 massacre of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, the 2014 slayings of three people at a Kansas Jewish center and retirement home and the 2012 killings of six at a Wisconsin Sikh temple.

Those high-profile cases make headlines, but they reflect a jarring reality: violence in church isn't unusual. On average, according to one church security consultant's data, there's a deadly attack twice a month at a U.S. house of worship or religious site.

It's a major reason that pastors, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders turn to consultants to make their members less vulnerable.

“There is a certain amount of insulation that goes on in churches, and it is a rude awakening for some when a violent event happens in the community or, Lord forbid, happens within the house of worship,” said David Benson, an Orlando, Florida, security consultant.

Some shootings, like Sunday's at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, have uncertain motives. Others were committed because of their victims' race or religion. Many fatal attacks get little national notice as the motive is robbery or a broken marriage.

“Churches, you don't lock the doors. But you know, we may have to. It's sad,” said David “Joey” Spann, Burnette's pastor who was wounded in the shooting.

Consultants say there are steps churches can take. They organize security committees and make other suggestions they believe will lessen the risk of attack. That can include installing surveillance cameras, hiring armed guards or allowing members who are police officers or trained, licensed civilians to carry concealed handguns.

The consultants tend to work within their own faith and use familiar language. Christian consultants often tell pastors that as shepherds of their flocks, they are not only leaders but protectors.

Florida sheriff's deputy Nezar Hamze quotes Islamic teachings allowing self-defense. Elise Jarvis reminds Orthodox synagogues that strictures against using phones on the Sabbath are waived in emergencies.

Several said the openness fostered by houses of worship makes protecting them difficult. Ushers are the first line of defense but aren't trained to look for threats, Benson said. Does a visitor appear excessively nervous? Is someone wearing a heavier coat than required?

“There is very little filtering of what we call DLRs – things that Don't Look Right,” Benson said. “We give them some training so they know what to look for.”

Carl Chinn, a Colorado-based consultant, has compiled a database using news and police reports. His logs show that before the Tennessee shooting, there were at least 447 deadly attacks over the last 18 years, killing 565 people.

Chinn said while terrorist attacks on houses of worship make headlines, they are only about 6 percent of the total. Most stem from robberies, personal disputes or domestic violence. That last cause can be tough to prevent.

“You know where she parked, what service she attended, what time she gets there, what time she leaves,” Chinn said.