Violence prevention a norm in more congregations
SHREVEPORT (AP) — Warm greetings in the foyers of local churches this holiday season will serve a dual purpose.
Congregation members shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries may be also assessing potential threats.
“Sunday is D-Day,” Caddo sheriff’s office trainer Capt. Kenny Sanders told dedicated members of Church at Red River on a recent Saturday. “How long are you going to have to identify if that guy coming through the door is full of rage or not? Seconds.”
More than 100 churches in Louisiana and surrounding states have sought Sanders’ help over the past few years.
Programs run the gamut in terms of training, with the breadth at each church’s discretion. But more frequent acts of mass violence have stirred pastors, preachers and congregations to take their safety into consideration, Sanders said. “Several churches have asked me to come back two and three times. The reason they were asking me to come back was either for more training or because they had added more members.”
Church at Red River has hosted Sanders four times in the past two years. Each session is different, but the goal is always to protect the flock.
“You train for any eventuality,” said Don Toppett, safety coordinator at Church at Red River. “We take it very seriously.”
Toppett’s team is nearly 50 strong. It includes congregation members who act as greeters and scouts, emergency medicine specialists and about 15 people trained and licensed to carry concealed weapons throughout services.
It’s an eclectic team — men and women, young and old with different skills for various functions of protection.
Warm-voiced ladies welcome familiar faces, always scanning for signs of disquiet. Those helping to park cars in the lot outside have been taught to monitor peculiarities of action. Fire and medical emergency drills are run regularly.
Others train constantly to wield a firearm inside the sacred setting if everything goes bad.
“Every church needs it,” said Ken Collins, part of the security team whose members call themselves Sheepdogs. “You never know in this world what’s going to happen. Our role is to protect the church members and be willing to go down for them.”
Nothing in the church has required his training, but Collins said the team is prepared. He’s attended each of Sanders’ workshops.
Any church security training starts by assessing buildings, grounds, and even a Sunday service walk-through for vulnerabilities, Sanders said. That can take more than three hours, Sanders said.
On Sanders’ recommendation, Church at Red River has installed security cameras throughout; replaced some solid office doors for doors with windows; and changed some door handles so no one can lock a congregation inside.
Current renovations near the nursery are aimed at limiting access to children with computer check-in systems and key code access pads, Toppett said.
Church leaders usually have volunteers by the time training begins, Sanders said. Churches are split down the middle on whether those volunteers should also be trained to carry firearms during services, he said. “That’s an individual church decision.
“The law was worded at one point in time to where it was illegal to carry a weapon in church,” Sanders said. “Now, if you already have a conceal carry permit and you go through this training, then they can carry if the church approves it.”
Weapons training is an eight-hour block on top of other sessions, Sanders said. Other training tends to be in three-hour blocks, he said.
“Firearms training is only a small portion of the grand total of all the training,” Sanders said. “It’s not that much different from law enforcement. They’ll only get about 60 hours of firearms training, yet they’re in the academy for 16 weeks.”
The recent session in Church at Red River focused on spotting problems before they flare up and using voice, posture and other communication to avoid the need for weapons.
Between “tabletop exercises,” which look at potential security concerns and responses in strategy sessions, and partnered skits — acting out scenarios — the session pointed to threats closer to home than mass shootings or religiously motivated violence.
Some 20 churchgoers were warned it isn’t a random gunslinger they should be watching for, but slighted wives and disenfranchised husbands who know where to find their targets. That person most likely will be someone known to the congregation, and subtle signs may give away bad intent.
“The person who refuses to be engaged is the person you need to be watching,” Sanders said.
THE REAL RISKS
Collins remembers when even the idea of having a gun inside church walls would have been laughable: “When I was growing up, you left churches unlocked. It’s a shame the world has come to this.”
The Rev. Ronald Harris Sr., a preacher in Calcasieu Parish, was fatally shot just before his sermon Sept. 27. Woodrow Karey, a 53-year-old Lake Charles resident and former church member, is charged with killing Harris with a shotgun.
“There’s a heightened concern over some of the things they’re seeing happening,” Sanders said. After the Calcasieu shooting, he said, “I had three requests right off the bat because it got a whole lot of media attention.”
The holidays can make such incidents more likely, he said: “You get an ex-husband and an ex-wife fighting in church because this is the holiday season and it’s the first time they’ve seen each other. ... You’re going to have people coming home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they’ve lived on opposite sides of the country. Now they’re going to see each other in church.”
Bossier City and Shreveport police spokesmen said there have been no major violence at local churches in recent memory. Each police force has dealt with property crimes at churches, and in 2009 Shreveport police arrested three drunks who disrupted two church services.
Emotions run high during the holidays, Toppett said, and he agrees his team will need to be especially vigilant in the coming weeks.
Church attendance also is higher during the holidays, a risk in itself, and there will be more money in the offering plate. That’s easy pickings compared to dealing with a bank vault.
“One church I just trained, their average take on a Sunday was $150,000,” Sanders said. “Me and you, if we were going to partner up to steal, hands down we’d steal from a church if we weren’t afraid of God.”
There was opposition to the law allowing firearms inside church walls, even in the author’s congregation.
“If you’re like myself and have eight grandchildren, it’d be one thing to turn your cheek,” said state Rep. Henry Burns, who represents Bossier in the Louisiana Legislature. “But to have even one loss would be awfully tough.”
For the Catholic Diocese of Shreveport, there aren’t any security teams or even plans to build them, communications director John Wilcox said. The idea was discussed when the law changed, but nothing came of it.
“A lot of churches, not just Catholics, might find it kind of odd,” Wilcox said. “The talk about armed people coming into church, it just seems a little much.”
The inclusion of non-lethal and verbal training has made church security teams more palatable since his law took effect, Burns said, but even his congregation hasn’t adopted a policy aimed at curbing potential violence. The law leaves the allowance of firearms up to church leadership.
“I follow the leadership of my pastor,” Burns said.