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When Sanctuaries Become Targets, Security Firms Help Harden Defenses

Police officers David Riggall, left, and Nick Guadarrama, center, demonstrate how to clear a hallway intersection during a security training session at Fellowship of the Parks campus in Haslet.
Associated Press
Police officers David Riggall, left, and Nick Guadarrama, center, demonstrate how to clear a hallway intersection during a security training session at Fellowship of the Parks campus in Haslet.

Traditionally, sanctuary has meant "safety." But decades of mass shootings in places of worship have shaken that faith.

Twenty years ago, it was Fort Worth's  Wedgwood Baptist — seven churchgoers dead. Then came 2015 and  Charleston, S.C. — nine dead. Two years ago,  Sutherland Springs — 26 dead. Last year,  Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — 11 dead. And just this weekend, in  White Settlement outside Fort Worth — two church members dead. All of this has led sanctuaries to harden their defenses in hopes of saving lives.

Jimmy Meeks, a retired police officer and pastor, spent 35 years serving communities in Texas and Oklahoma. But these days, he travels around the country conducting Sheepdog Seminars, calling on churchgoers to prepare for violent attacks.

And he says this is his No. 1 tip:

“Wake up! If you’re not awake, it doesn’t matter what we tell you to do," Meeks says. "If you sleep through the news and everything that’s going on … you’re not going to concern yourself with safety.”

Meeks’ eight-hour, $75 seminars can be alarming. He says they need to be that way, because most folks aren’t aware of how many people are dying in places of worship.

“Over 900 people have died a violent death on church and faith-based properties since 1999. That number’s just as high, if not higher, than school shootings. That number is higher than the number of police officers killed every year.”

Those statistics come from a Deadly Force Incidents study. It’s a database operated by the Faith Based Security Network, a patchwork of security and law-enforcement professionals hoping to make faith-based organizations safe.

David Riggall has the same goal.

“We put them through a basic combat pistol class, an intermediate pistol class and an advanced pistol class," Riggall says.

Riggall has been a police officer in Texas for 16 years. He’s also the founder of a companythat trains volunteers to be part of church security teams.

His workshops across Texas last four weekends and include active-threat training, hand-to-hand combat skills and life-saving medical coaching.

“And we actually do in-service training every six months after the academy to make ’em stay sharp on their skills," Riggall says. "Or we’ll pull their license and not let them work anymore. So they have to continue that education.”

Riggall points out that shootings, like the one at West Freeway Church of Christ, usually end within moments — long before police can arrive. His training helps volunteers fill in the gap. The White Settlement church used a similar training program.

“The type of people who’ve been put in front of me love it. I mean, they’ve got a heart protection. They’ve got a heart for God. They want to do what’s right. They know that they could die doing this and it doesn’t bother them,” Riggall says.

Brad Orsini says it's crucial to have trained security like Jack Wilson, the church member who shot the gunman in White Settlement.

Orsini has firsthand experience. He's the director of security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. And he responded last fall when the shooting began at the Tree of Life synagogue.

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

That muscle memory saves lives. Eleven people died last Oct. 25 in Pittsburgh. But survivors said training — on things like escape routes — saved countless lives.

Still, Orsini says he has concerns.

“Guns are not always the answer," Orsini says. "It’s a layered approach. 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."

His top priorities? Securing entry points, teaching escape protocols and having an armed presence. So a sanctuary can really be a sanctuary.

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Hady Mawajdeh is an Arts Reporter and Digital Editor for KERA’s Art & Seek. Hady came to KERA from Austin where worked on “The national daily news show of Texas,” Texas Standard. At the Standard, Hady crafted stories and segments about the topics and headlines that mattered most to Texans.
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