After a small rural church in Texas became the site of a devastating mass shooting a month ago, leaders at the First Baptist Church in Tallapoosa decided it was time to take a proactive step to protect local congregants.
“While we already have many safety procedures in place, the event in Texas is a reminder that even the most sacred places are not immune from such violence,” Rev. Mike Casey, interim pastor of the church, wrote by email.
Casey said the church reached out to Smyrna Police Department Major Jon Carter, the son of church members Jim and Janice Carter, for help and then invited other local churches and business owners to attend a training session with Carter and Lt. Mark Binicewicz on Saturday.
“We simply believe that there is power in being a team player for the Kingdom, and such is the reason we are sharing this experience with the community,” Casey wrote.
On Saturday Casey said First Baptist suggested that each church registered send four or five people to attend the training. Thirteen churches from the surrounding area registered 80 people to come to the session, he said.
Rev. Steve Thomas, pastor of County Line Baptist Church in Rockmart, who attended with two other church members, said his church had created a team to work on an emergency plan. Half the team went to a training in Polk County and the other half came to Tallapoosa for the training.
“We’ve always considered the safety of our members very important,” Thomas said. “We want to be up on the newest and best information.”
With random mass shootings making news on a seemingly regular basis, it makes sense for everyone to have a plan in place for such events, Carter and Binicewicz said during the training.
The plan should be simple enough to remember and enact under stress, Carter said. It’s important because it’s often the reaction of the people under attack that can save their lives, he said.
“What they have looked at and studied is that in these active shooter things It’s not always the police that stop these folks,” Carter said. “In cases where people actually fought back, they were over quicker, there was less loss of life.”
Any plan should begin with getting people out of the building and away from danger as quickly as possible, Binicewicz said. Get out and call 911, he said. And think outside the box about escape, Binicewicz said. If the doors are blocked, look for windows or other escape routes, he said. If getting out is impossible then, he said, people should lock or barricade entry into the rooms where they are hiding and stay quiet. Most often that will deter a shooter looking to kill as many people in as short a time as possible, Binicewicz said. If the shooter is determined to get in through the barricade, look for anything that can be used as a weapon and attack while he or she is still occupied with trying to get through the barricade, Binicewicz said.
The program they led on Saturday was based on a law enforcement training program developed the Texas State University in 2002, Carter said.
U.S. police departments were unprepared for active shooter incidents in 1999, when two teens started gunning down students in Columbine High School in Colorado, Carter said. At the time, protocol was for police to secure the scene and wait for special weapons and tactical teams to go in, he said. But a SWAT team can take 45 minutes to get suited up and arrive. During each minute of a mass shooting an average of seven people are killed, though, Binicewicz said.
“Those poor kids waited 45 minutes before a police officer entered into that school,” he said, adding that was 25 minutes after the shooters had turned their guns on themselves, ending the killing. “We, as law enforcement, we had to change the way we did our work.”
The loss of life at Columbine ushered in new training for all police officers in order to stop shooters as quickly as possible, Carter said. The information is applicable not only to an attack in a church, but anywhere, he said.
“The more people know about this kind of thing, the better off we’re going to be as a community,” said Binicewicz said. “Getting this information out here is going to save lives, one way or another.”
It helps if people think about what might happen and what they might do in response, he said. Just thinking about it can help prepare a person to react more quickly, Binicewicz said.
“If you’ve thought it one time before, you have something to pull out of your tool box,” Carter said.
Several of the people attending the training asked about armed people in the church.
“I have a lot of training in this,” Binicewicz said. “Leave that to the officers. Leave that to the people that have the body armor, that have the protection, that have the rifles.”
Carter agreed. If someone has a license for a concealed weapon, it is for defense, never offense.
“Your job is to make sure everybody gets out that door,” he said. “Your job is defending these people.”
They also said it is up to the church leaders to decide if they want to allow weapons in the church.