As Americans mourn the anti-Semitic massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, security experts in Colorado Springs want to help religious leaders throughout the country prepare for a variety of potential threats.
“This city has more faith-based headquarters than any community in the nation, so it makes sense to headquarter security consulting here,” says Carl Chinn, who heads the Faith Based Security Network in Colorado Springs.
The nonprofit has branches in 34 states, offering consultants with backgrounds in law enforcement, military and the Secret Service. They specialize in helping leaders of synagogues, churches, temples and mosques develop security programs appropriate for each congregation’s unique needs.
For Chinn, killers in religious institutions are not an abstract news story.
He was the structural engineer for the main administration building of Focus on the Family. Chinn was in the building on May 2, 1996, when a gunman took him and three others hostage. The captor surrendered about two hours later during negotiations with cops.
Years later, that experience led Chinn to join an innovative security program at New Life Church, a “megachurch” built like a large concert arena. Volunteers, trained in defensive shooting, signed up to patrol the campus secretly in plain clothes at coordinated times.
Just after 1 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2007, Matthew John Murray arrived at New Life with more than 1,400 rounds, an AR-15, two semi-automatic handguns and smoke bombs. He shot five people in the parking lot, killing teenage sisters Stephanie and Rachel Works.
More than 7,000 churchgoers had been on campus that day. About 700 remained when Murray entered the church and sprayed bullets into a hallway full of children. Unarmed security volunteers “Dave” and “Buck” screamed at the kids to flee, and none were injured or killed.
Murray tried to make his way to the main arena of the church, intent on shooting up the crowd. He had posted “Christian America this is YOUR Columbine” on the internet newsgroup alt.suicide.holiday — referring to the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School near Littleton.
“He went through two 30-round magazines, and shot at least 27 holes in the building,” Chinn said, explaining he was 82 yards from the shooter and preparing to engage him.
Down the hall and closer to Murray was parishioner, security volunteer, and life-saving hero Jeanne Assam.
“I knew she would shoot him or get shot,” Chinn said.
Assam shot Murray several times, dropping him to the ground. Incapacitated, Murray took his life with a handgun.
“We walked up to the killer and watched him die,” Chinn recalled.
The United States consists of more than 375,000 faith congregations, and most have no serious security protocols.
El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder recommends area religious leaders contact his office, Chinn’s organization, Focus on the Family’s security department, or the Colorado Springs Police Department for professional assistance in establishing security measures. The Sheriff’s Department offers a program called REACT — Ready Evolving Active Crisis Training.
Elder said law enforcement mostly provide security assessments, while the Faith Based Security Network helps develop comprehensive programs of all varieties.
“We want to make sure it’s not just ‘hey, if you have a concealed carry permit bring a gun to church.’ There is a lot more to it than that,” said Brian McPike, director of security at Focus on the Family and the former police chief of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
McPike said an increasingly common security model at religious institutions calls upon off-duty law enforcement personnel, and retired military, who belong to congregations. Some churches place a marked cruiser outside during services and have off-duty plain-clothed officers inside.
Focus helps any faith-based organization that reaches out, and McPike said the nonprofit is developing a more robust consulting service to meet growing demand.
The hate crime in Pittsburgh was not the first and won’t be the last. Religious institutions of all kinds draw crowds of demographics subject to ethnic and sectarian hatred.
As seen too often, mass murders take seconds. Law enforcement arrives in minutes. Let’s get prepared.
• Focus on the Family Security Department: 719-548-4555
• El Paso County Sheriff’s REACT: Sgt. Deborah Mynatt 719-520-7166