Hemelt: We can no longer take church safety for granted

Published 12:03 am Saturday, May 28, 2016

Church personnel know what normal behavior looks like in their buildings, and local pastors certainly know what the demographics are within their church walls.

Once they know the normal, they can start looking for the abnormal.

That awareness greatly increases the chances of avoiding tragic results in the event someone means to do harm to the church or church personnel — an increasing risk across the United States.

The numbers, according to one private security leader, are alarming.

Since 1999, we’ve seen a 2,380 percent increase in violence in churches across the nation. In the last ten years, we’ve seen a 600 percent increase.

In 2015, there were 248 violent incidents — crimes against persons and churches — reported, which was a 40 percent increase from the previous record year in 2014.

Vaughn Baker, president of Strategos International, shared those numbers with me this week, adding his company’s goal is to train professional first responders and everyday business and volunteer personnel on the proper response to dangerous scenarios, including active shooter situations.

St. John the Baptist Parish pastors got a firsthand lesson on proper threat response last week when a Strategos International instructor hosted a one-day seminar at the St. John Sheriff’s Office.

The training sought to educate ushers, greeters, deacons, elders, parking personnel, leadership and security personnel within churches to what suspicious activity looks like.

Almost all bad actions, Baker said, are preceded by bad body language or suspicious behavior.

“We teach them what that looks like and how to respond to it based on what they observe and what their responsibilities are,” Baker said.

“For instance, some of these attacks (on churches) have started with somebody who shows up 20 minutes after the service begins. In one of the attacks, the guy parked his vehicle directly under the awning and left his vehicle running and the driver’s door open for a quick getaway.

“We also talk about how to do a lockdown of your church, how to do safe security protocols for checking in and checking out children within the nursery.”

Telltale signs of concern include someone trying to be self-isolating, appearing nervous or someone who is very restless with a flushed face.

“Our goal is just to help people stay safe until law enforcement gets there and teach them how to protect themselves in the day-to-day world, using some really common sense, practical principles and procedures,” Baker said. “For churches, we really emphasize doing it in a way that doesn’t compromise the core mission of the ministry — in other words, without turning our churches into prisons.”

Sheriff Mike Tregre said the training, held in the LaNard Robinet Multi-Purpose Room at Patrol Headquarters, stressed to church leaders not to assume “it will not happen here.”

“It’s important for the church and law enforcement to form partnerships,” Tregre said. “Working as partners, we can plan and prepare to face threatening situations if or when they do occur.”

Awareness of behaviors and characteristics of an intruder or active shooter, responding to an intruder or active shooter and planning a lockdown were among the topics addressed.

It’s a sad state of affairs that our society is in this situation today, but recognizing all churches are at risk for crimes is necessary to developing an effective safety plan.

All River Parishes churches should take this step for safety.

We can no longer take our safety for granted.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.