Detroit churchgoers get tips on dealing with violence

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Dozens of people packed a movie theater on Detroit’s east side Wednesday to learn how to protect themselves in case someone commits violence while they’re worshiping at church.

The Detroit Police 11th Precinct hosted “Violence and Active Shooters in the Place of Worship,” held at the Bel-Air Luxury Cinema on East 8 Mile before a standing-room only audience.

“It’s sad we have to do these things, but we have people out there who are trying to hurt people, and are aiming for those places they think are the most vulnerable,” Assistant Chief Arnold Williams said.

“We want to make sure everyone has the tools they need, so if something like this happens, you’ll know what to do to increase the number of people we can save, and catch the guy who’s doing the harm,” Williams said.

Active shooter situations have been the topic of much discussion in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead, though Wednesday’s session was planned before the mass shooting.

Detroit police 11th Precinct Neighborhood Police Officer Eric Hill, the emcee of the presentation, offered several safety and security tips for church officials and parishioners.

“You should have somebody in the church who knows first aid,” he said. “Also, church security needs to rotate; don’t stay in one place.”

Hill also suggested proactive measures to ward off an attack by someone using a vehicle. “Get concrete barriers,” he said. “Put some flowers in it, so vehicles can’t go into the front door.”

Detroit church violence in recent decades was discussed, including a 2006 shooting in which Kevin Collins fatally shot two worshipers and wounded another in Zion Hope Missionary Baptist Church; and a 2012 incident at Victory Way Assembly church, in which 84-year-old Korean War veteran Joseph Lewis was shot and killed in the church parking lot.

“There have been 147 active shooter situations in a church setting (nationwide) from 2006 to 2016,” said James Soper, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “That’s daunting. We need to know what we need to do in that situation if we encounter it.”

When Soper asked the audience members how many of them attend churches that allow parishioners to be armed, about half of them raised their hands.

“We go to church to get away from evil, so the thought of having to be armed in that setting to protect ourselves from evil is a different mindset to be in,” he said. “Growing up, I’d never have thought ‘I hope my family member has a firearm with them in church.’ But today, it’s the norm.”

Hill suggested church leaders find out which worshipers are carrying concealed weapons. “The bishop, or whoever is over the church, can assign who is armed in the church,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean you have to come in saying ‘hallelujah’ with a gun on your hip,” Hill said. “If law enforcement comes into the church in a shooter situation, we need to identify who’s who so they don’t become a victim.”

Soper said if worshipers are going to carry guns in church, they should have ongoing training.

“At the end of the day, at the time of a critical incident, you’re going to go back to what you know, so if all you’ve been through is a CPL class, it’s probably not going to be much use for you. So go through continual training,” he said.

If officers show up and tell an armed church member to drop their weapon, “then drop the weapon,” Soper said. “Show your hands. Let them handle the threat.”

Soper also suggested armed parishioners wear bright-colored sashes bearing the church name or the word “security.”

“That way, when law enforcement shows up, they can see this is probably a staff member,” he said.

When Soper asked the attendees if they thought the AR-15 is the firearm of choice for most active shooters, a few raised their hands. The AR-15 has been the subject of debate recently because it was used by Nikalos Cruz in the Florida school shooting.

There are several myths being propagated about the AR-15, ATF agent Mike Jones said.

“The vast majority of active shooters use semiautomatic handguns,” Jones said. “We also see AR-15 and AK47 rifles used, but while they look more intimidating, generally they perform the same function as a semiautomatic pistol.

“We’re hearing a lot about people having machine guns, but it’s very difficult for people in this country to get full machine guns,” Jones said. “So someone with an AR-15 or AK-47 is firing the same number of bullets as a handgun.

“They may be able to fire more bullets without reloading than a handgun because the magazines have a higher capacity, but mostly people are intimidated because AR-15s look scary,” Jones said.

Lt. Matthew Taylor, head of the Detroit Police Bomb Squad, warned attendees to watch out for items that don’t look like they belong in church, and said people need to be able to distinguish between an unattended package and a suspicious one.

“You can’t set up a 500-foot perimeter and call the Bomb Squad every time someone puts a book bag down, or leaves a purse in the pew,” Taylor said. “But there are suspicious packages, and those you need to be aware of.

“How do you tell the difference between an unattended item and a suspicious item? My answer is, ‘what does a suspicious person look like?’ If you call 911 and say there’s a suspicious person, you can tell me why.

“So you already know what a suspicious item looks like,” Taylor said. “You are the experts; you’re the managers of that church. You know what belongs and what doesn’t.”

Hill said he hoped the audience members would never have to use any of the tips that were provided Wednesday — but said it’s crucial for them to be ready for any possibility.

“We deal with evil people in the world.,” Hill said. “You’ve got to be armored up. That’s why we’re here; to get some armor on.”

Ronald Griffin, a former Detroit cop whose father of the same name has been pastor of the Rose of Sharon Church of God in Christ on Detroit’s east side for 25 years, said Wednesday’s presentation was valuable.

“Sometimes people in churches are the most uninformed,” Griffin said. “People go to church to hear the good news, but this is important information for them to have, too.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN