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Experts Encourage Layered Approach To Church Security Protocols


The word sanctuary means safety, but decades of shootings in sanctuaries - places of worship - have shaken that faith. Just this past weekend, two church members were killed when a gunman entered a church near Fort Worth, Texas. As KERA's Hady Mawajdeh reports, some sanctuaries are hardening their defenses.

HADY MAWAJDEH, BYLINE: Jimmy Meeks is a retired police officer and pastor. He spent 35 years serving communities in Texas and Oklahoma. But these days, he travels around the country conducting seminars, calling on churchgoers to prepare for violent attacks.

JIMMY MEEKS: Wake up. If you're not awake, it doesn't matter what we tell you to do. If you sleep through the news and everything that's going on, you're not going to concern yourself with safety.

MAWAJDEH: Meeks' seminars are alarming. He says they need to be because folks aren't aware how many people die in places of worship.

MEEKS: Over 900 people have died a violent death on church- and faith-based property since 1999. That number is just as high, if not higher, than school shootings.

MAWAJDEH: Those tabulations come from a database operated by the Faith Based Security Network. That's a patchwork of security and law enforcement professionals hoping to make faith-based organizations safe. David Riggall has the same goal.

DAVID RIGGALL: We put them through a basic combat pistol class, an intermediate pistol class and an advanced pistol class. We also do...

MAWAJDEH: Riggall has been a police officer in Texas for 16 years. He's also the founder of a company that trains church security volunteers. His workshops across Texas last four weekends and include active threat training, hand-to-hand combat skills and life-saving medical coaching.

RIGGALL: We actually do in-service training every six months after the academy to make them stay sharp on their skills, or we'll pull their license and not let them work anymore. So they have to continue that education.

MAWAJDEH: Riggall points out shootings like the most recent one usually end within moments, long before police can arrive. His training helps volunteers fill in the gap. The church near Fort Worth used a similar training program.

RIGGALL: The type of people that have been put in front of me love it. I mean, it's - they've got a heart for protection. They've got a heart for God. They want to do what's right. They know that they could die doing this; it doesn't bother them.

MAWAJDEH: Brad Orsini says it's crucial to have trained security, like the church member who shot the gunman in Texas. Orsini has firsthand experience. He's the security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and he responded in 2018 when the shooting began at the Tree of Life synagogue.

BRAD ORSINI: We don't want the first time that people have to react is in a real-time situation, right? We want to be able to develop good protocols and procedures where it's instinctual. We build muscle memory inside the brains of all of our congregants, so if something bad happens, they know how to react.

MAWAJDEH: That muscle memory saves lives. Eleven people died in Pittsburgh, but survivors said training on things like escape routes kept the death toll lower. Still, Orsini has concerns.

ORSINI: Guns are not always the answer. It's a layered security approach that we must push into every one of our houses of worship. They all need to collectively be working.

MAWAJDEH: His top priorities - securing entry points, teaching escape protocols and having an armed presence, so a sanctuary can really be a sanctuary.

For NPR News, I'm Hady Mawajdeh in Fort Worth.


Hady Mawajdeh