Preparedness is key in keeping congregations safe, police officer says

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Police officer Justin Sparks, with St Louis County’s tactical operations unit, said in a presentation Monday that a little preparation can go a long way in keeping people safe.

He outlined a strategy based on what he called the four “e’s” — education, evading, escaping and engaging. “Not necessarily in that order but based on the circumstances you find yourself in,” said Sparks.

The officer gave several tips on what congregations and individuals can do in the face of a threat.

• Prepare mentally ahead of time. Sparks urged people to think about what they might do to counter a problem before it happens – organizationally and as individuals. “We hope for the best but we prepare for the worst,” he said.

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Hire security. Not every house of worship is comfortable with armed guards but he said that some do take on security in a less conspicuous way. “Some churches, synagogues and mosques will employ off-duty policemen in plainclothes – even people of faith in their own congregations,” he noted.

• Ask questions. If staff employees see someone who doesn’t seem to belong, they should feel free to query the person. “The best way that we talk about is simply asking them, ‘What are you doing here?’” he said. “We, as a society, don’t like to offend, do we? We like to be welcoming. That’s good. We want to be welcoming but we also have to recognize the circumstances of the day and the society we live in.”

• Be alert to odd cues. Pistols are easy to hide but long guns, such as the assault weaponry favored by spree killers are much bulkier and may require a long coat or other method for concealment. “You see somebody coming in with a long duffel bag, you might not buzz that person in or we might ask that person,” Sparks said.

• Barricade yourself. A chair can sometimes be used to block a door in an emergency and remember that wood doors hold up better than glass. “Get to a place where you can lock down and lock the doors, barricade the doors because, on average, you’ve got about five to six minutes before the police get here and deal with the problem,” he said.

• Use whatever is handy. Sparks said chairs can make a handy weapon if you are in close quarters and can’t escape. Other things can also be used as makeshift projectiles. “A fire extinguisher is a great example. Books, staplers. Throw things and distract somebody.”