As church leaders across the country ask how to keep their congregations from becoming targets, one North Texas police chief has some answers.
The chief of police at Cedar Valley College has training seminars specifically designed for church groups. He says as we've seen in Sutherland Springs, it's not just the big churches with high exposure that need to prepare.
A church is where many go to let their guard down, never expecting a gunman to prey on closed eyes and bowed heads.
“It seems to me that churches, places of business, schools ought to have policies addressing this issue so that we can protect our children, we can protect our parishioners, we can protect people — given that this is going to happen again,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
The attorney general’s message has already been received by Trenton Steen, the head of security at Concord Church in the Red Bird area of Dallas. It’s a message sinking in with members. His security team is learning how to stay safe with specialized church security seminars at Cedar Valley College.
“Church incidents in which people are killed or seriously injured have gone up well over 6 or 700 percent,” said Cedar Valley College Police Chief Anthony Williams. “And why do you think that is? It's because the churches are such a soft target.”
The police chief says safety starts in the parking lot with cameras and alert staff. On the inside, staff trained to not just eliminate a threat but recognize it early on by reading body language and using signals to communicate with other staff.
Williams says increased security is attainable, even for small churches.
“Some smaller churches may say we don't have the budget for that. The first thing I tell them is is it's not a budget issue,” Williams said. “We want you to just go and get the training. Because you already have the resources. You already have the people in church.”
Meanwhile, Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano says it already has a strong security system in place. Its church leaders plan to host a seminar to give advice to other churches.
Mike Buster is Executive Pastor at one of the largest churches in America. Prestonwood Baptist has 43,000 members with a 140-acre campus and a 7,000 seat worship center.
In wake of the mass shooting in South Texas, Senior Pastor Jack Graham tweeted, “We are making plans today to host and train church leaders for security training."
Pastor Buster says the time is set now with a six-hour seminar set for December 5
"We've had such a robust security system here for so many years that churches are seeking information and needing to know what security looks like for them,” Buster said.
At Prestonwood, it's a 24/7 operation with multiple security cameras and armed officers — volunteers with police training in plain clothes while others are in uniform, like Jason Burns, a moonlighting Plano officer.
"It's the forefront of our minds,” Burns said. “So anything we can do to put people at ease."
“It really starts in the parking lot. There are people at every door,” Buster explained. “Uniformed police officers. We have contract security, and then we have a security volunteer group spread throughout the facility."
The pastor called what happened in Sutherland Springs "disheartening."
“It brings us to our knees, and we just want to be available and be a resource to other churches,” he said. “It’s sad but true that churches have to think about security really on a daily basis."
For churches interested in Prestonwood’s seminar on security, it will be held at the church on December 5. Prestonwood realizes not every church has the resources it has, but it thinks it has advice to offer to even the smallest congregations.