Churches seek safety strategies

Published 5:47 pm Saturday, February 17, 2018

Local churches are looking to gain more knowledge on how to keep their congregations safe after fatal shootings in places of worship in the last few years.

“After the Charleston shooting, we got inquiries about putting together a seminar,” said Sheriff E.C. Harris. “It would be free of charge, but it’s a huge undertaking. There are 202 churches in Suffolk the last time I checked.”

Mass shootings in churches in recent years have included the June 2015 massacre of nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and the 26 who died at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, during Sunday service on November 2017.

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While Suffolk’s churches are already on their toes when it comes to safety, most leadership would like more knowledge on how to handle a situation should one arise.

“Some have dedicated safety teams, and quite a few of them have parishioners that are law enforcement,” Harris said.

Churches have a message to accept everyone, but there is a “fine balance” with accepting everyone and keeping the congregation safe, according to Harris.

The training seminar, which should occur in the next few weeks, will include church leadership and those who have volunteered their time. Church leadership will be given abundant information — understanding laws, forming a safety team, how to choose people on the team and how to handle safety precautions.

“It’s an ongoing process you have to be dedicated to,” said Harris. “It’s a big undertaking for the churches.”

Currently, Virginia the law does not allow for people to have a dangerous weapon in a place of religious worship “without good and sufficient reason,” according to the Code of Virginia. A bill in the General Assembly this year would have repealed the law, but it was left in the House Courts of Justice Committee.

Along with safety tips, the Sheriff’s Office will present church leadership with how to handle an active shooter should that situation arise.

Suffolk’s Sheriff’s Office plans to do everything they can to arm the churches with information to keep them safe, and they plan to do individualized assessments of the churches if they choose.  The assessment would include going over weak points of the church and current safety tactics.

The Sheriff’s Office plans to offer suggestions for which doors to keep locked during the services, as well as which people to have trained to greet the congregation at the door to keep an eye on potentially suspicious attendees.

Having law enforcement examine current safety procedures can be beneficial, and Pastor Michael Halley from Suffolk Christian Church said the church has already reaped the benefits of such instruction.

“A year or so ago, we partnered with Suffolk Police Department, and Officer Chris Butler came and did a thorough review of our facilities, practices and policies,” Halley said. “We have drafted a security plan that we are currently in the process of implementing.”

Halley has welcomed law enforcement for their expertise, and they plan on sending a representative from the congregation to attend the Sheriff’s Office seminar to bolster their security even more.