CCSO hosts Church Safety Class

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Cullman County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Trevor Clemmons, a firearms Instructor, speaks at Daystar Church on Thursday, Aug. 18 during a Church Safety Class. (Sara Gladney for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Cullman County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) on Thursday held a Church Safety Class at Daystar Church in Good Hope

Said Sheriff Matt Gentry, “Twenty-three years ago, I never would’ve thought, getting into law enforcement, that we would be giving classes on security. Who would have thought 23 years ago, we would be talking about church shootings, school shootings?”

In July, the CCSO put on a class that had over 300 school administrators and school resource officers from across the state. Since the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May, local school systems and churches have been reviewing their security policies.

Gentry said, “If we can do something in the classroom that prevents something bad happening in reality, then that’s a win…What we can learn today, if it stops and prevents something bad from happening, while we’re doing one of the greatest gifts that we have – and that’s worshipping our lord and savior- that’s a win.”

The CCSO offers to come out to churches and evaluate the security measures in place. But Gentry was adamant that churches stay inviting, saying, “Schools, churches- those places are inviting places. We want people to come. We want people to be in here to worship. We want people to be in this room, but we also want to stay safe.”

Lt. Trevor Clemmons began the training session with a startling video of a church shooting filled with chaos. He pointed out churchgoers lying on the ground, running or hiding without a plan.

Clemmons said the security team in the video noticed a suspicious individual in the parking lot and kept an eye on him while he moved through the church before pulling out his gun. He noted the importance of confronting a suspicious individual early before shooting starts. He recommended that each church create a security team, whose purpose should be to provide a safe and secure environment for all who worship, work and visit. He said that the team should be unobtrusive.

“We don’t want you to look like a bunch of Navy Seals,” said Clemmons. “The sheriff is real big on demeanor, uniform and that kind of thing. He doesn’t want us to look like we’re invading Afghanistan. We want to be of the people. That’s the same thing you need to do as a church security team. You need to be the nicest guy there, but you need to be the baddest guy there.”

Clemmons suggested hand selecting a security team rather than putting out a flyer for all to apply for the job. Applicants should be reliable members of the church who may have security experience, having worked as military personnel, police, EMTs, firefighters or security guards. At least two members are recommended for any church with a congregation of less than 100, and two security members per 100 individuals attending a larger church.

Clemmons listed the tools he said are necessary for church safety: surveillance cameras, radios, flashlights, first-aid kits, panic buttons, ID/access cards and weapons.

He said that maintaining situational awareness is where some security could get a little overzealous. Most churches profess, “everyone welcome.” However, caution and attention to behavior are necessary to prevent intruders from getting too far inside a church, he said. He encouraged engagement of any suspicious characters as soon as possible, but for security to be courteous and welcoming. Signs to watch out for include anger, rage, crying, evasiveness, panic, unusual absence of emotion, wild eyes.

“I know churches deal with these kind of things because people come to churches for healing. They come to church for Him,” he said. “They come to church to meet the Lord.”

He encouraged interacting with any strangers or suspicious individuals with kindness as soon as possible, but to be ready to subdue the subject if he or she becomes confrontational.

“When the time to perform has arrived, the time to prepare has passed,” he concluded.

Cullman County Sheriff’s Office Director of Communications, Lt. Chad Whaley, speaks at Daystar Church on Thursday, Aug. 18 during a Church Safety Class. (Sara Gladney for The Cullman Tribune)

CCSO Director of Communications Chad Whaley conducted the portion of the training called ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate).

“Unfortunately, we’re a society that is reactive; we forget then we remember and forget again,” said Whaley. “We’ve had these trainings and we’ve had 25 people in the audience, and we’ve had these trainings and we’ve had 1,700 people show up.”

He wanted to teach the crowd to remember to be attentive at all times, even when there has not been a recent emergency, and to have a plan in place for crises.

“It’s common sense that isn’t common knowledge” is a phrase taught in the ALICE program.

Whaley said, “People are inherently good. I firmly believe that there are way more good people than bad people.” He said that it makes sense for good people not to understand the rationale of those with bad intentions.

He instructed individuals to have a plan in place, so in the event the unthinkable happens, they don’t freeze. “Without mental preparation, there is no physical action…Your instincts will get you killed because your instincts will tell you to hide. Your instincts will tell you to lay in the floor. Your instincts will tell you to do nothing because your brain is overwhelmed.”

Instead of giving control entirely to a security team, Whaley advised that all should be self reliant.

“Everybody in here has the right to do whatever they feel is best in order to go home. It’s hard to be selfish in church. This program is selfish because if you’re dead, you can’t help anybody,” he said.

Whaley’s primary focus was to advise people to accept their perception of a situation. “We live in a world of rationalization because most people are good. It’s very hard to rationalize and to accept that somebody would walk into a church, pull out a gun and start killing people,” he said. “Social media has made it impossible for anybody to be wrong. Everybody is scared to death to make a mistake,” he added, saying that many individuals will not alert anyone to a situation for fear of their actions being perceived as an overreaction. “Being embarrassed is much better than being dead. We’re so scared of being wrong that as a society we scared to even help anybody anymore.”

Whaley said evacuation is always the best option if you have enough information and it makes tactical sense. However, if the only information available is that the attacker is outside, he said, there is no reason to leave one’s location.

For years, school shooting drills taught that students and teachers should remain silent and huddle in a corner, he said, but this method did not address what would happen if the shooter entered the room. It is now recommended that everyone spreads out across the room and has an alternate escape route.

Although fighting back against an intruder is the last resort, according to Whaley, he recommended distraction techniques, saying, “Multitasking is a myth. When people do fight back, the shooter will often shut down.”

Kids in schools are now taught to throw books, cans of soup, anything they can find at an intruder to change his or her focus from pulling the trigger.

“Anything beats nothing,” said Whaley. “Be careful. When you can’t be careful, be violent. That’s hard to be in a church, I know. We are supposed to love everybody, hug everybody, but at some point, you gotta flip over some tables.”

To schedule a class or a walk-through security evaluation with the CCSO, email tclemmons@cullmansheriff.org or cwhaley@ccboe.org.

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