How many local houses of worship have a security team? How many have had active-shooter drills? Which churches can lock down the nursery and defend innocent people against an active shooter who enters during a church service?
These were some of the questions Jim Howard asked more than 300 representatives from local churches Wednesday during a training session at the Venice Community Center.
Howard, executive director of Trinity Security Allies, spoke to the room of mostly elderly churchgoers as he made his point about keeping children and adults safer while attending church services. He explained scenarios from the past few years, including instances where an active shooter entered a church and fired at everyone, as happened in the June 17, 2015, murder of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina.
He said in some cases people froze, gave up and were shot. More can be done to save people, he stressed.
“Issues facing churches today — besides active shooters — include aggravated battery, burglary, domestic violence, embezzlement, kidnapping, sexual battery, theft and vandalism,” Howard said.
Crimes, including violent ones, can be prevented with training and awareness.
In one case, no one reported a man wearing tactical gear and carrying a gun the week before at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The following week, the 26-year-old man returned and shot a woman outside the church. He went inside and fired at 46 people aged 5 to 72. A neighbor heard the gunfire and grabbed his AR-15. He told his daughter to call 9-1-1. He ran outside barefoot and fired at the man as he escaped to his running vehicle. The neighbor continued shooting as the suspect sped off.
“Police arrived four minutes after the 911 call was made,” Howard said. “Not one person called 9-1-1 during the six-minutes the suspect was in the church. He left his truck running which indicated he didn’t think he was going to die in the church. Police found him dead not far away from the church. He was shot twice by the neighbor who fired at his side after seeing the suspect had on a bullet proof vest. The man died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. That day he fired 300 of 450 rounds he had on him.”
Howard said if that small church had a security team and active shooter plan in place, more people would have survived. He said churches need security teams made up of volunteers, law enforcement, (retired) military and others with security backgrounds. These individuals should have “strong people skills,” know how to recognize those with mental and emotional disabilities, have a keen ability to observe people and situations, have good judgment, are not implosive and “must be known as servants of the Lord.”
Church volunteers can alert someone from the security team if someone comes into the church with a suspicious package, backpack, out-of-place clothing (like a ballistic vest, all-black clothing or a trench coat on a hot day, combat boots, swim trunks, shirts with offensive sayings that could insight a fight). The security team member should speak to the person but not in an intimidating way. Howard said asking simple questions and getting to know them can deter someone with an ill intent to harm others.
“It is up to church members to observe, assess and react,” he said. “Every church member can be a part of the safety team by being aware of people entering the church — where the exits are, how would they get to them, what would they use as a barricade if there was a shooting.
“One thing many churches have are hymnals. If a shooter has 40 hymnals or Bibles coming his way, he’s not going to be shooting.”
Jim Howard saw fatal violence when he was 16. He witnessed his father go outside a church and kill a deacon who was helping his family because of domestic issues they were having.
At 18, Howard enlisted in the Air Force Reserves Security Forces and at 21, joined the Norfolk Police Department where he spent 26 years. In 2001, he worked worldwide security operations and executive protection at the World Bank in Washington D.C.
He went back to law enforcement as a detective for the Belleair Police Department until 2017.
After teaching hundreds of officers about domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction and mental health issues, Howard designed a low-cost safety and education program for churches, faith-based schools and nonprofits.
Howard said some people disrupt church services and catch the congregation off guard. He showed videos where a priest was punched in the face while performing a celebration of life service in Newark, New Jersey. Another man jumped on stage and screamed about the pastor not preaching properly. In both cases, security team members responded quickly, but only after the disrupting person made it in the pulpit area near the pastor.
“We need to get wise folks,” Howard said. “No shooter has been able to breach locked-down buildings. They don’t have time, so they move on.”
A handful of Englewood United Methodist Church Community members learned about safety issues necessary to better secure the large campus on East Dearborn Street.
“We have a long way to go,” said member Beth Harrison. “We are devising a security plan which we will work to implement. We have done some things like lock doors to make our church more safe for everyone.”
Mike Weaver, pastor at Gulf Cove United Methodist Church between Port Charlotte and Englewood, said he learned some new safety measures at the training.
”We have church conference safety sessions,” Weaver said. “So we already have things in place like a secure layout of our church. I’m going to look more into how to lock down the church. The Methodist Church is very supportive and protective of church safety.”
Have a plan
Howard said to take threats made on social media or in person very seriously. He said an angry police officer threatened to kill his ex-wife at church. He told a friend his plan. The officer was surrounded at the church. He had 1,500 rounds of ammunition in his vehicle.
Howard said church crisis plans should include how quickly will law enforcement respond, when to shelter in place or evacuate. Do the doors to the nursery or children’s ministries lock?
“You can create better security if you can lock some doors to the church and have a centralized entrance area where greeters and the safety team can keep a watchful eye on people coming in,” he said. “If a person looks out of place or had odd body language, a security team member should approach the person in a non-confrontational manner.
“Sometimes a person is just having a bad day. Other times, they may have bad intentions. You have to have a survival mindset and say ‘today’s not the day I will die, I have kids at home.’”