‘I ran toward the gunshots’ Can civilian volunteers protect sacred spaces?

By Deanna Zammit

“I heard gunshots, and everybody got up and started trying to get out the back door. So I—for whatever reason—I didn’t do that. I ran the other way. I ran towards the gunshots.”

Last month, when a white supremacist gunman attempted a mass shooting at a San Diego synagogue, Oscar Stewart chased him into the street. While Stewart said instinct kicked in, his military training surely helped too. “I knew I had to be within five feet of this guy so I knew his rifle couldn’t get to me,” he told The Daily Caller.

That Stewart, an Iraq War veteran, was in the congregation at the time of the attack was a blessing. Last week, as houses of worship worldwide wrestle with the possibility of an armed attack, we posted this piece on what can be done to protect their congregations. While we noted that ushers and other volunteers should be trained to watch out for suspicious people, we did not point out that certain members may be well-suited to active security participation.

To learn more about how to identify and train community members to play a greater role in keeping their churches, synagogues, and mosques safe, we spoke with Michael Rozin, CEO of Rozin Security.

Attacks on houses of worship are becoming increasingly common. Is it important for congregations to identify and train people who might be most useful in a crisis?

I can’t say enough how important it is. Volunteers help out with ushering, they help out with education, they help out with catering, they help out with construction. And that builds an overall stronger community. The security is no different. Having people with the right skill set to function as such, as security professionals when they’re needed is a great thing. It builds community.

But before you do anything, before you go and run after volunteers or put security cameras in place or hire guards to protect you, someone needs to do an assessment. Someone needs to understand what are you protecting, when are you protecting it, and what you are protecting against. What are the weak points? Based on that assessment, you need to build an overall security protocol. What does it look like? Who does what? What gaps need to be filled? Where do you need people? Where don’t you need people? That way, security volunteers can play a vital part in an overall security plan.

Is a security assessment something a congregation can do on their own?

There are a number of ways to do it. One is definitely a security consultant like ourselves. But assuming they cannot afford to hire a consultant, they can ask their local police department. Jurisdictions have crime prevention specialists that have some background and training in how to conduct assessments. You can also look to your community. Sometimes you are lucky and you have someone. If not, you can at least go to other churches. Typically, the bigger houses of worship in the United States, already have talked through this and have some resources, have some plan in place. By reaching out to your peers in the community who are maybe a little bigger and been around longer and have more resources, you will learn from them.

So once you have assessed your property and have a game plan, how do you identify the right volunteers for security detail?

If you determine you don’t have to have an armed person, it’s about bringing in someone with experience who can interview people to understand their motivation behind volunteering, understand their character, understand their ability to move to task, to think fast on their feet when need be.

If you need an armed person you’re looking for a certain background. You need to have people who come from military, law enforcement, special operations, or organizations that are used to handling firearms. You will still provide them with training on how to function in your church and how to work as a team, but you should not hire or allow armed volunteers as security in your churches without a good five to ten years at least of  background in handling a weapon in another professional organization, preferably government organizations.

So we’re looking for people who are mentally stable, properly motivated, ideally have some sort of security background, police officer, military, etc.

With charismatic personalities.

Why are charismatic personalities important?

The majority of security work is not about the gun, it is not about responding in a crisis. These attacks don’t just happen. A perpetrator has selected this target: He has visited, figured out which door he’s going to use to enter and exit, what he’s going to attack, and how he’s going to do it. During this period, perpetrators are highly vulnerable and they’re able to be detected and acted upon.

This is where you need someone with a charismatic personality, someone who is not only willing to act when the danger is in front of them, but someone who is willing to actively engage, start a conversation, ask the questions, be inquisitive. If you don’t have this kind of personality it is much tougher for people to develop it.

If attackers spend a lot of time staking out their target, should organizations have someone on their property at all times?

The Cadillac version of this answer is yes. Just like you have a maintenance guy in a facility when you have someone in the building, you want to have a security person.

If you cannot do that, you want to train everyone that you have on staff to be an extension of the security effort. You want to provide them with basic training: what to look for and what to do when they find something that isn’t right.

In some cases, technology can help extend the reach of your efforts. Surveillance systems have become more and more effective. Programming the right rule-based analytics can go a long way. For example, a vehicle that comes to the parking lot and sits there for more than usual or comes at a time that is unusual is the kind of thing that surveillance systems can alert people to and ultimately dispatch a police car to take a look.

Once you have identified your volunteers, how and how often do you train them?

Break you volunteers down into two categories: those that are armed and those that are not. You train unarmed volunteers with all the preventative strategies, how to recognize suspicious indicators and how to act on those. Whether it’s about visitor greeting and management, or scrutinizing package and deliveries, or screening people before and after the services, you build a training protocol.

Sometimes they might have to  deal with difficult people. Places of worship attract people with a range of emotions and a range of sanity. And they have to prepare to deal with all kinds of situations. Programs like verbal de-escalation training and crisis intervention training help you recognize when a person is not quite there and how to communicate effectively with them.

Then you train them on medical first aid and CPR. Often they will be the first to respond when someone doesn’t feel well or if there is a more significant incident like a shooting. They will most likely be in the best position to use their first aid that could save lives.

Ideally, you should retrain volunteers every six months.

And if they’re armed personnel?

You want to make sure that everyone who is armed is legally permitted to do so. You take them to the range and you make sure they know how to operate a firearm regardless of their background. You have to verify that.

Then you have to train them on how to use a firearm under stress and how to use a firearm when you have a concentration of people and you have to make safe decisions. This is very different than simply going to the range. It requires a lot more effort and money to train in this way.  You also need to train in defensive tactics: you may have to disarm the person or get yourself to a safer place, so making these assessments effectively also requires some training.

And how often do they have to refresh their training?

When you have an armed person, we typically recommend every month. They should spend at least a day or so every month on training. And every six months, they should also spend a week in training.

Is there a guideline as to the number of security personnel per number of people being protected?

For every thousand people you have in your congregation, you have at least four security personnel, three unarmed, one armed.

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