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Houses of Worship Must Be Welcoming but Protected, Security Experts Say
The deadly shooting at Emanuel AME Church focuses attention on safety
By Noreen O'Donnell
June 18, 2015
Two years after a gunman opened fire in a Sikh temple south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, killing six people, the congregation has formed its own security force, police officers patrol its parking lot and its members have had to learn how to be both welcoming and cautious.
They watched newcomers for suspicious behavior and felt secure again only with time, said Amardeep Kaleka, whose father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was killed in the attack at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek.
“As a congregation we had trouble with trusting and opening our doors up again,” Kaleka, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, said. “But we did, based on the community’s response. We did start to feel more and more secure as people would come through and say nice things and positive things.”
On Wednesday another tragedy gripped the country: Nine people were shot to death during Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, was arrested in what officials are calling a racially motivated attack. Police say he joined the prayer meeting about an hour before the attack.
Attacks are not new, but what is unprecedented are mass casualties, said Paul Goldenberg, director of the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit organization serving the American Jewish community, and the co-chair of the Department of Homeland Security’s Faith-Based Advisory Council.
“There has been a paradigm change,” he said. “Ten years ago we saw graffiti on synagogues and AME churches and we saw cemetery desecrations. Now we actually see people going into our houses of worship and committing mass killings.”
Security experts say that is it possible to balance openness and vigilance in protecting houses of worship but that congregations must take part in keeping themselves safe.
Churches and synagogues need to train people within the community to spot someone who is planning an attack — the volunteers, ushers, administrators or people who cut the lawns — and to encourage them to speak up immediately if they see something odd, he said.
“We have only minutes sometimes to save lives,” Goldenberg said. He advocated having video cameras, panic buttons and lighting at night and training in what to do if there is a shooter.
“It’s about empowering members of congregations, not scaring them,” he said. “So they want to continue coming and praying and participating.”
The Department of Homeland Security provides grants to help protect non-profit organizations that are at a high risk of a terrorist attack and that are located within eligible areas. For the 2015 fiscal year, $13 million was available for security improvements.
Bishop William P. DeVeaux Sr. of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who is based in Washington, D.C., said that so far the bishops have been focused on bringing solace to the family of the slain pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney, but that they would have to turn their attention to increased security.
“I think that’s going to have to be carefully worked out and to be honest with you it has not been done so,” he said. “Now we cannot make it like a fortress obviously and we’ll have to work out some other arrangement where we have to be more attentive to security.”
Emanuel AME Church had cameras, which did not prevent the attack but did help in Roof’s capture, he said. Other measures will have to be considered too, he said.
“That’s a tough one in terms of how do you make people welcome especially if you come anywhere near profiling,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to do that.”
Rabbi Seth Limmer of Chicago Sinai Congregation leads a synagogue in the heart of the city’s downtown. Before he arrived, the FBI was called in to investigate what he called a threatening package that he declined to describe further.
“We’re a place that really has to confront these issues in a real way,” he said.
The hope is that the synagogue’s members will think of the building as a sanctuary, not a fortress, he said. Its staff meets with the Department of Homeland Security every year to review its security measures, from entrances and locks to policies should a shooter get in the building.
Windows are of bullet-proof glass. Off-duty police officers who act as security guards open the two set of doors that lead into the building. They know when to open a door and when not to, and when to go outside to talk to a drunk man who thought the synagogue was his apartment one Friday night, Limmer said.
He said his heart would be torn if nine people were killed no matter where, but that the shooting occurred in a church and was racially motivated made the tragedy even worse.
“On top of all the violations of human dignity and propriety that it happened in that sacred space, it’s so appalling,” he said.
Elise Jarvis, the associate director for law enforcement outreach and communal security for the Anti-Defamation League, said that staff and others should learn how to identify suspicious people, activity, objects, letters and packages. Evacuation plans should be in place; contacts with law enforcement made before an emergency takes place.
A secure environment is a welcoming one, she said.
“People want to feel protected and in a safe place,” she said. “We try tp have people think about them as not necessarily two incompatible things.”