LAURINBURG – In the wake of the Texas church shooting, the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office has re-introduced a program designed to teach crime prevention to local churches.
The class is presented by Sheriff Ralph Kersey and his department to help churches come to grips with the fact that they may need extra precautions to protect themselves.
The class was first offered in 2015 after Dylan Roof walked into a Bible study session in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people who had welcomed him to the group.
Kersey along with Chief Deputy Lloyd Goins, Lt. John Hunt and administrative assistant Rebecca Riggs spoke most recently with members of Caledonia United Methodist Church.
“What makes churches unique is what makes them vulnerable − that openness and the attitude that this won’t happen at a church, the belief that we accept anyone that attends church because that person is in need,” Kersey said.
The sheriff added that churches will need to make adjustments.
“Pastors are going to be put in a position to make some hard decisions when it comes to protecting members of the church and still be Christ-like if they have to ask someone to leave,” he said. “You can still minister to someone outside the church.”
Part one of the two-day course is a presentation that goes over topics like statistics related to crimes committed at churches, a history of violent crimes in churches, why churches are targets, the types of crime committed against churches and what they can do to protect themselves.
Some contributing factors are hours of operation that see churches left empty for long stretches of the week, parking lots full of cars – many unlocked – during services, isolated churches in rural areas and demographics like families attending the same church, elderly and children all influence crimes from shootings to fraud, theft, robbery and vandalism.
“I never thought I’d live in a time where we would see fences around air conditioners and people targeting churches,” Kersey said.
The majority of church shootings can be attributed to domestic situations and family conflict, according to Kersey.
The second part of the program consists of members of the sheriff’s office assessing the facility for security deficiencies.
The team will go over issues like locks, key management, access, lighting, the need for signs prohibiting weapons, surveillance and security systems, landscaping, and how to properly secure tithes and other cash on the premises.
“It’s called target hardening, eliminating the opportunity and sending the message that the risk outweighs the potential reward for the crime,” Kersey said. “We’ll also talk about establishing a church safety team and what they need to look for with people’s behaviors.”
People exhibiting atypical emotions like anger, crying, unusual or out of control laughter, nervousness or an absence of emotions or someone remaining by themselves trying to go unnoticed can all be warning signs, according to Kersey.
Kersey also discussed the idea of possibly allowing safety team members to carry weapons on church premises.
Kersey, a devout Christian, does not believe that his program or the idea of church security conflict with the ideology of the church.
He refers to the Bible to back up his thought process citing Ezekiel 34:15.
“The Bible is clear on being a Sheppard and protecting his flock. ‘I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.’ The number one responsibility is to make sure 99 percent of the people attending are protected,” Kersey said. “The Bible talks of being a watchman. That’s why churches should implement a plan of security.”
Pastor George Ellis doesn’t see it quite that clearly. His church, Union Grove Baptist Church on Shaw Street will participate in the class, but he is conflicted about what needs to be done and how to go about it.
“We’ve got to look at ways by which we can be more vigilant in areas, but what we may do may differ in methods and means we use in our churches,” said Ellis who has already fielded questions about church safety and even carrying weapons on church premises from concerned parishioners. “It’s limited, for me, as a church [leader] for what we represent, limited in what we can do, but as a church we have to be mindful of our calling because of what we do and who we represent.”
Ellis worries about profiling people who come into the church who may me new faces or who look or act differently because newcomers often are distressed by the time they seek out the church. To do or say the wrong thing could turn them away when they are not a threat.
“We don’t want people to feel alienated, but at the same time if someone is not acting normally, we have to keep our eye on them,” Ellis said of the dilemma.
On the topic of guns, Ellis is reluctant but has not shut the idea down completely.
“We probably have to really look at that because properly trained people is what I want, but the down side is that if the gun was to go off accidentally – if someone forgets to put on the safety, you will have a panic” Ellis said. “It’s a pretty bad day when you have to resort to these means.”
Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169