Protecting houses of worship: a local, state & federal concern

In 2007, a gunman attacked Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada and New Life Church in Colorado Springs. In 2008, it was Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 2012, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In 2015, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

After the Charleston shooting, Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh partnered with the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and local law enforcement to present a seminar to communities that express interest.

So far, three Protecting Houses of Worship seminars have been held in Front Range churches:

  • Shorter Community AME Church in Denver (Aug. 18)
  • Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Niwot (Oct. 29)
  • First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs (Nov. 12).

The intention, Walsh said, is to raise awareness among faith leaders about the need to prepare a plan to keep their community safe from a wide range of potential threats.

Crowd Shot 2

Sean Finn and Jane Walsh of the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office explain the laws behind Boulder County hate crime prosecutions at the Protecting Houses of Worship seminar in Niwot, Colorado, on Oct. 29. (Crystal Eilerman/Under the Flatirons)

Developing a plan

A large crowd gathered at Rocky Mountain Christian Church on Oct. 29 to find out how to protect a community that is, by its nature, open and inviting.

Todd Sanstedt, a supervisory special agent in the Denver division of the FBI, responded to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church attack in July 2008.

“Four of the members of the church subdued the shooter, who was a stranger to the church,” Sanstedt said. “Interestingly enough, another first-time visitor to the church was involved in restraining the subject. This is the conundrum we face.”

The speakers agreed that faith leaders must answer several questions before they can develop an effective emergency response plan for their unique community.

Dilpreet Jammu, co-chair of Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and president of Colorado Sikhs, outlined five primary questions:

  1. Does your congregation have a visible or a minority community?
  2. Is your congregation rural, in the suburbs or in the city?
  3. Is your organization open 24 hours a day, seven days a week?
  4. Do you have a defined membership?
  5. How much tension do you want, and how do you want to manage that?

See the video below for Jammu’s explanation.

A vital part of emergency response planning is developing a strong relationship with local law enforcement and first responders, Jammu said.

Pelle explained that his officers are assigned to particular regions with a goal of learning building layouts and contact people. He encouraged organizations to contact his department directly.

“We’ll arrange to get some people to come by and meet with your staff, take a tour of your facility, figure out exits and entrances, that kind of thing,” Pelle said.

Sanstedt emphasized the importance of running regular emergency drills. If you don’t talk about it, he warned, a disruption can cause a deer-in-the-headlights response.

Instead, if something were to happen in a house of worship, everyone should be prepared to run, hide or fight.

“Each one of them is a good answer, and an answer that can either save lives or prevent something from continuing to happen,” Sanstedt said.

He acknowledged that emergency response planning isn’t most people’s idea of fun, but it’s extremely important.

Additional Photo

Todd Sanstedt, Joe Pelle, Joseph O’Keefe, Dilpreet Jammu and Jeremy Shaver (left to right) host a panel discussion at the Protecting Houses of Worship seminar in Niwot, Colorado, on Oct. 29. (Crystal Eilerman/Under the Flatirons)

‘It’s just simple: call us’

Jeremy Shaver of the Anti-Defamation League emphasized the need for people to keep their eyes and ears open to anything that doesn’t look or feel right, and encouraged them to always call the police.

Pelle gave an example of unusual behavior in his own house of worship. A month ago, he said, a man whom no one knew was standing in the lobby of his church wearing camouflage and mirrored sunglasses and carrying a backpack.

Pelle saw the man and asked his fellow parishioners who he was. They said they didn’t know, and they’d thought about calling Pelle, but they didn’t want to bother him. Pelle was incredulous.

“My guys are on duty to be bothered by you,” Pelle said. “Please call us. We will sort out what we need to sort out to keep ourselves and you all out of trouble.”

Walsh explained that state hate crime statutes are a little bit of an early warning system, alerting police to developing situations signaled by graffiti, mailings, threats or harassment.

“You don’t have to wait until something really terrible happens to reach out to the police,” Walsh said.

Terrorism not the likeliest threat

Most of the two-and-a-half-hour seminar was dedicated to discussions of hate crimes and active shooters, with presentations by the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office, the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI Denver division.

During the panel discussion, Pelle reframed the issue.

“If you belong to a congregation that has more than a couple dozen people, you’re at risk,” Pelle said. “And it’s domestic violence.”

In one prominent case, an estranged husband stabbed his wife in Boulder’s Sacred Heart of Jesus parking lot this July. A church employee saw what was happening and scared the husband away by pulling out a concealed handgun.

“He stopped a murder,” Pelle said of the good Samaritan in the audience, and an individual with a concealed weapon permit also stopped the shooter at New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

“I guarantee you,” Pelle said, “there are people in your congregation today that are carrying concealed weapons with permits.”

Pelle acknowledged that concealed weapons can be effective in the right hands, but most people would do best to either run or hide.

In addition, anyone with a weapon in an active shooter situation is in extreme danger, Pelle said, and must do exactly what officers say when they arrive on the scene.

“They are not going to wait for you to make a decision about whether you are going to comply with verbal orders,” Pelle said.

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