LOS ANGELES — In the days following a fatal shooting at a black church in South Carolina, and more recent fires at black churches, church officials here are moving away from discussing possible security measures and instead implementing a strategic security plan, according to several church leaders.
Michael Jones, a member of Holman United Methodist Church and chair of its security task force, says religious institutions are moving away from protection against arson and theft and instead are focusing on mentally ill individuals, domestic terrorists and copycats.
“We came up with five focal points concerning church security in light of the things that happened in South Carolina,” Jones said. “Not just in the sanctuary but protection for pastors, members, visitors and the entire campus.”
Jones could not provide exact details, but says Holman plans to expand its security group and volunteers.
The longtime church member says the protocol is designed to be simple and comprehensive enough for people to follow, whether it be volunteers or hired guards. Most importantly, Jones says, active participation from congregants is vital.
“If you see something, say something,” Jones said.
Admittedly, Jones understands the discussion for expanding security does not sit well with everyone.
“Some people are thinking, ‘We’ve been ok this whole time and God has been watching us’… but we also need to be proactive, not reactive,” he said.
Yet, securing places of worship while remaining open to the public is a delicate balance, according to the Rev. John E. Cagers III of Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“We don’t want people to feel like they’re going through an airport security line to get their praise on,” Cagers said.
However, the AME pastor says he has enlisted the help of a church member, who also works for a security system company, in implementing surveillance for a ministerial alliance comprised of 56 AME churches in Southern California and the Las Vegas area.
The ministerial alliance is looking at top-notch security systems commonly found at financial institutions, restaurants and schools.
“Had certain measures been in place, [Dylann Roof] would not have had time to reload five times,” said Bill Richardson, a member of Ward AME and senior executive at U.S. Security Systems.
He explains, “There could have been a wireless panic button worn around an individual’s neck or kept inside of a pocket. Once the button is pressed, it sends a signal to a central station that alerts police immediately. The center would be able to give a description to police of the situation via camera. It would have identified race, height, clothing … they would know exactly who to look for.”
Such measures are not completely unwarranted as churches cannot avoid protecting their congregation, said Marc Little, chief operating officer and general counsel for Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood.
“Just like with any large gathering, we’re no exception to becoming targets for violence. Churches have been held up for offerings,” Little said.
Similar to other places of worship, Faithful Central offers training to its security team, which includes retired and active law enforcement personnel, he said.
“Racism does exist,” Little said. “[But] what happened in Charleston happened to the body of Christ. We feel very deeply about that.”
“It’s problematic of the demonic influences in our culture,” he said.
He was talking about the incident June 17, when Dylann Roof killed nine people inside Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina.
The 21-year-old told investigators he shot and killed the people he sat with during Bible study to start a race war.
Within days of the Charleston shooting, several black churches in the Southeast were burned, leaving church members and investigators suspicious. The most recent site, Mount Zion AME in Greeleyville, South Carolina, caught fire June 30.
Investigators say there is no evidence pointing to arson at the Greeleyville church, but it was set on fire once before by two members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1995.
Investigators believe lightning caused the fire this time, according to senior officials in the FBI.
While public opinion was quick to label the church fires as hate crimes, federal investigators and experts familiar with hate crimes say there is no evidence supporting the claim.
Civil rights lawyer Amanda Susskind, a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, says hate crimes boil down to one crucial element: intent.
“Let me tell you what a hate crime isn’t, it’s not a criminalized thought,” she said. “It can be arson, assault, vandalism and so on — combined with intent.”
The 100-year old advocacy organization opposes anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry. In 1981, the league paved the way for defining hate crimes that many states used to draft legislation, according to officials.
“Bias constitutes the basis for penalty enhancements, such as paying a bigger fine or staying in jail longer,” Susskind said.
Within recent years, other advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center documented synagogues, mosques and Sikh temples as often being targets for hate crimes. Christian churches, especially predominantly attended by black congregants, seldom made the list.
People like to call the Charleston shooting an attack on the Christian community, but it was an act aimed at instilling fear in the black community, which happened to take place inside ae church, Susskind said.
“People use the phrase ‘church attack’ to avoid race in the subject,” she said.
To help assist other places of worship since the Charleston shooting, the league has reached out to local law enforcement to provide resources on institutional security, victims’ assistance and expertise on hate symbols.
Susskind also hopes local church leaders reach out for assistance.
“It’s a tremendously difficult problem and all religious institutions suffer from the same concerns,” she said. “You want to be welcoming to people and offer your faith-based services, but you need to be aware of the dangers out there.”