After 26 people were killed nearly one month ago at a small church in Texas, more York County area religious leaders are calling on law enforcement officials to help ensure members’ safety.
“It was really after the (Sept. 24) shooting in Tennessee that we really began reaching out to law enforcement and making sure we are mentally prepared for what the worst could be,” said Christine Corbly, director of evangelization at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Lancaster.
The church has hired an off-duty officer during Mass times on Saturdays and Sundays, she said.
And they aren’t alone.
Jasiri Makadara, spokesperson for Masjid Al Salaam in Rock Hill, said religious leaders have been taking safety concerns seriously for a while now. The mosque also hires an off-duty police officer for its prayer service every Friday, he said.
“The nine people at Emanuel Church in Charleston were assassinated by Dylann Roof and everyone was very concerned about that being a religious institution,” Makadara said. “Not a masjid, not Islam – but a religious institution.”
He said since Masjid Al Salaam, “Mosque of Peace,” moved to West Main Street in Rock Hill about five years ago, security plans have been in place. For a while, that just meant assigning brothers to sit at each entrance.
“As we grew, we became more conscious of security, and we started making plans to do something more sophisticated, more secure,” Makadara said.
Makadara said the mosque reached out to Rock Hill Police Department and York County Sheriff’s Office for security advice about a year and a half ago. Sheriff’s deputies spent several days going over security protocols with mosque leaders, Makadara said, and the mosque purchased security cameras.
Fort Mill’s Jewish communities declined to comment, but said they work with the Fort Mill police to ensure the safety of congregants.
Makadara and Corbly both said their congregations are taking the same mindset: Be aware and alert, but not afraid.
“We really are just trying to be as prepared as we can to anticipate what situations can happen,” Corbly said. “It’s devastating that these happens, but in some regards it's not surprising. We just have to stay vigilant and not fearful.”
Makadara said while all religious organizations are on edge after attacks nationwide, Muslims in the U.S. are especially on alert – and even more so after President Donald Trump retweeted a far-right British group’s anti-Muslim videos Wednesday. Trump’s decision to retweet the videos drew condemnation from British lawmakers, including the Prime Minister Theresa May.
But Makadara said the members of the mosque feel safe with police support and security plans.
Avoid, deny, defend
Sgt. Michael Johnson of the Rock Hill Police Department said the department has four instructors who train local communities on how to prepare for active shooter situations. They’re averaging about three trainings a week now, he said.
“Especially after Las Vegas and the incident in Texas, we’ve seen a huge increase,” Johnson said.
On Oct. 1, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, leaving 58 people dead and 546 injured. On Nov. 5, 26 people were killed at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Johnson said it’s important for religious communities and businesses to have a safety plan in place and clearly communicate that plan to everyone.
He said the department teaches people to “avoid, deny, defend.”
“Avoid the situation if you can,” he said. “The best thing to do is get out of the building as quickly as possible.”
If they can’t avoid the situation, the next step is to deny the attacker entry to the location, Johnson said.
After that, he said, people should defend themselves in any way possible.
Maj. Bryan Zachary of Fort Mill Police Department said their nationally certified alert instructor also helps teach local residents what to do.
“That’s what we always encourage is for folks to take a very proactive approach to it and to always have a plan in place,” Zachary said.
Doug Barfield, spokesperson for the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, said Lancaster County has worked on similar presentations, too.
“It’s definitely been a collaborative effort,” said Corbly, of Lancaster County deputies and police working to help local religions groups. “And I think like any disaster response it will continue to evolve.”
Hannah Smoot: 803-329-4068, @hgsmoot