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Emergency planning with religious leaders

By Sgt. Robbins, Boone County Sheriff's Department

Recently a locally based law enforcement trainer contacted my Sheriff and asked if there was someone who could speak at a class he had developed to help Churches with emergency planning. The Sheriff referred him to me.

When first approached to speak to this group, I was both saddened and encouraged. I was asked to speak about what to expect from the Sheriff’s Department if we responded to an emergency event at their facility, and also to address how they can work with us to help if an incident did occur. I had always believed that the safest places a person could be were the home, school, and the church. Society and the job have taught me that the home can be a very dangerous place, as can schools. Only recently, with a seeming increase in violence at religious facilities, I have realized churches can also be dangerous places, which makes me sad.

What encourages me is that a problem has been recognized and the religious communities are reaching out for help with planning. Planning is critical to mitigate any problem which may present itself, even if it is an incident with elements which were not anticipated. During my presentations, I frequently state that any amount of planning which will lessen the impact of an incident, or which will prevent one additional person from being injured or killed, is well worth the time and effort. I had no idea how quickly the area of emergency planning and safety in religious facilities would develop for me or the challenges it would present.

Several years ago I was asked to represent my department in a multi-agency, multi-discipline group of public safety entities (LE, Fire, Medic, and Health Dept.) to improve the school safety and the emergency preparedness of the schools within our county. The administration thought it might be something I would do well with since I was the Commander of our Emergency Response Team (what we used to call our SWAT Team), and this type of incident would require an “emergency response”. While common sense would dictate a school based shooting is not a likely candidate for a SWAT call due to their historic short duration (in this country), I gladly accepted the assignment since it was an area I was interested in. The group has participated in the planning and conducting of numerous Active Shooter, Mass Casualty Incident, and Weather Event training sessions in both the field and as Table Top Exercises. But these are all topics for another day...

About a year ago, I was asked to speak to a group of county employees at the Government Center about workplace safety. County government had developed a training group, which had come up with this topic during a brainstorming session, so they asked the Sheriff’s Department to come up with a trainer. Since I had done so well with school safety and emergency planning, the topic of workplace safety seemed like another logical sidebar assignment for me. While there are certainly differences due to the type of population and mission of these facilities, I must admit, some of the strategies I suggest to teachers for escaping schools safely can also be applied to workplace safety.

The reason for this rambling is to set the scene for how I felt when the Sheriff referred this local trainer to me. I understood why I was given this assignment, but this was not necessarily an audience I had considered targeting. The reality is that this population is in dire need of some assistance and direction when it comes to emergency planning and the safety of both their facilities and their members. Religious facilities come in all shapes and sizes, as do their leaders and members. Being able to be open minded (and respectful) when speaking with leaders about how to go about this can be difficult. Public Security in Private Places is a complex topic with issues not necessarily well understood by Law Enforcement.

I recently met with a member of a church who appeared to have the very best of intentions and who was talking with me about their security group at his church. He had contacted the department to seek input about how they can improve and how we can work together for the safety of his congregation. When he told my Captain that they have a small school at the church (40-45 students), you know this was destined to be assigned to me.

I found it difficult to keep an open mind (and be respectful) when, for instance, I learned that the security group members are required to have their permit to carry concealed weapons, yet they did not want to wear any sort of easily identifiable clothing or marking which would indicate they are part of a formal security force. This generated a rather lengthy conversation about not only initial training in firearms and shoot-no shoot/use of force training, but ongoing training in these topics as well. He was resistant due to his belief the congregation would be made fearful by the presence of some sort of uniformed security force in church (much like I had been saddened by the realization that churches can be dangerous places too). I advocated for uniforms, or some sort of obvious marking ability (such as a readily donned vest) in the event deputies responded to an incident.

Identification had been an important topic in the planning for responses to school events. Situations such as a plainclothes detective who may, for instance, be driving by a school when a shooting occurs have frequently come to mind. Like I said before, this is not a SWAT call, this is a first officer on the scene call, most likely an on-duty patrolman, but realistically a response could involve off-duty and/or plainclothes officer(s). I deal with realities, the reality is a good guy who is not in a uniform may be in a position to help, but he needs something more than a badge on a belt when he comes around a corner at the scene of a school shooting with a gun in his hand to avoid becoming a possible casualty. The same thing applies at churches, or other places for that matter. I also like the deterrent factor visible security personnel offer to discourage the efforts of the criminal element.

I am not sure I got through to him. Ultimately, it will be the church leaders, and the congregation itself, who will decide if they are more comfortable with armed members of a security force being secreted among them at all gatherings, or if visibly marked security personnel are acceptable. I, obviously, prefer them to be visibly marked (and trained) as both a deterrent and for identification purposes. I believe the members of any congregation are attuned enough to past events, and societies ills in general, to appreciate the planning and forethought of the church leaders to try and ensure their safety at what should be one of the safest places we go.

Sgt. Robbins has served with the Boone County, Missouri Sheriff’s Department for more than 12 years. He is currently the Commander of the SWAT team and the Vice President and a founding member of the Central Missouri Tactical Officers Association.


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