BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The mass shooting that left more than two dozen dead and 20 wounded in Texas has churches in Alabama and elsewhere reviewing security policies to see if there are precautions they can take to prevent attacks against churchgoers.
Many large churches already have elaborate plans.
“On Sundays, we’ll have four uniformed officers,” said DeLeon Allen, associate pastor for administration at Gardendale’s First Baptist Church. Allen oversees the Safety and Security Ministry for the campus that draws 3,500 worshippers on a typical Sunday. The uniformed officers direct traffic between services, then are stationed around the facility. There’s also a less visible security team.
“We’ve got law enforcement volunteers that are in their Sunday clothes,” Allen said. “They’ve got earpieces, walkie talkies. We have cameras everywhere.”
A security director watches the camera feeds from a control room.
“That’s just safeguards,” Allen said. “You can’t always prevent. We try to have eyes and ears.”
The shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Nov. 5 was far from the first church shooting in the United States. Also on Sunday, a man gunned down his ex-wife and her new boyfriend in the parking lot of St. Alphonsus Church in Fresno, Calif. On Sept. 24, a gunman killed one and injured several others at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn.
More than 91 people have been killed in at least 22 church-related shootings since 1999, with at least 8 shooters then killing themselves also.
With three deadly shootings in 2017, this has been the deadliest year for killings at U.S. churches. But it has been a recurring problem, from seven dead at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Texas in 1999 to nine killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
Gardendale instituted many of its present security policies after the 1999 Wedgewood Baptist shooting.
“We need some seminars on how do you best protect your people,” said the Rev. Jimmy Jackson, pastor of Whitesburg Baptist Church in Huntsville. Whitesburg hires security and has law enforcement officers who do volunteer security in services as if they were ushers.
“You can’t hire enough police,” Jackson said. “The church is going to have to sit down very carefully and very wisely and determine what’s best.”
St. Paul’s Cathedral has a police officer present for weekend services. “It’s unfortunate that’s the way it has to be,” said Bishop Robert J. Baker, head of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham. He said there will be discussions of increased security. “There will be talk about doing it at larger churches. It’s the reality of the world today. The church can be and often is a target.”
Help is available for churches that want to increase security.
The Cullman County Sheriff’s Office will offer a training session for churches on Nov. 14 at 6 p.m. at Temple Baptist Church in Cullman. It was moved to the larger venue based on increased demand.
“We can give them an overall church security briefing,” Sheriff Matt Gentry said. “Our main goal is make sure our citizens are taken care of.”
Two officers from the department will lead the church safety class and will discuss the creation of church security teams and increasing building security. “I never thought when I began my law enforcement career 18 years ago that the security of our churches would be a national issue at any point,” Gentry said.
“For over two years we’ve been doing church security teams,” Gentry said. “I have a group of deputies that go in, do an assessment and put together recommendations. If they want to set up their own security team, they can show them how to do it. We have a policy and procedure to go by.”
Tom Eden, an Auburn attorney who has advised churches on security issues for more than a decade, said even small churches like the one in Texas need a security plan.
“They need to have a safety committee,” Eden said. “They need to involve people in the congregation who have law enforcement or risk reduction experience. It’s everything from what if someone has a heart attack, or someone gets up and starts dog-cussing the pastor, what are you going to do? The usher team is supposed to step up. They become the eyes and ears of the church. They need a plan. I have recommended for years that churches have a police officer out in front of the church directing traffic. If someone is going to harm a church, they may go past if they see the police presence.”
Radio talk show host Greg Davis, pastor of Beechwood Baptist Church in Mt. Olive, said churches have an obligation to provide due diligence on security for churchgoers.
“There’s no way to completely ensure safety anywhere for everyone,” Davis said.
“Many churches already have some kind of security and safety plan in place,” he said. “Those that do not probably will after this.”