MARTINSVILLE – The key to protecting churches from violence is not in knowing how to fight back, but rather how to diffuse problem situations in the first place.
That was the overriding message during Monday’s workshop “Securing the Faithful,” led by church safety expert Rick Arrington and sponsored by the Martinsville Police Department.
More than three dozen people attended the day-long workshop, which was held at First United Methodist Church, said Martinsville Police Department Captain Chad Rhodes.
Arrington stressed “recognizing the danger signs with someone who could some into one of your church services,” Rhodes said. That all starts with “knowing the people in your church and the people who come into your church.”
Part of the solution begins with how people are greeted, he said.
As people come into the church, “shake their hand. Look them in the eye. Ask them a few questions to determine how truthful they’ll be,” he said.
During the greeting, the greeter should look for signs of intoxication of if a person may be carrying a weapon, Rhodes said. If the person appears to be holding onto something or his arms don’t swing naturally; if he is overdressed; or if his pockets sag “might indicate his is carrying a weapon,” Rhodes said.
If a visitor is suspected to be dangerous or have bad intentions, “safety first” is important, Rhodes said: “Get in touch with law enforcement as quickly as possible.”
Church folks should not even consider physical confrontations, he said, but rather be “focused more on recognizing the danger signals.”
Arrington also talked about “ways of communication with mentally ill people or really emotional people,” he said, and “ways to deescalate the situation to get them to talk to you.”
The most important thing to do seems to be listening, Rhodes said. “Let them talk without interruption. Let them blow off any steam they might have.”
If action must be taken – for example, if someone is too drunk or irate to remain at a community meal – the visitor of concern should be given options on what to do, rather than be given orders.
“You don’t want to back them into a corner,” he said.
Instead, give choices, such as a problematic person may be asked to leave a dinner, or offered a plate and invited to sit alone in a private area to avoid bothering others.
Having clear rules posted at the entrance to public service events is a good way to help maintain control, he said. They should state matters such as “the right to refuse to serve anyone under the influence.”
“There was a lot of interaction,” Rhodes said, as local pastors talked with Arrington about their concerns.
Most people in attendance “seemed to be concerned with food pantry ministries and child day care” in the case of interactions with people who appear to be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Domestic issues also are a problem locally, such as when a father who does not have custody wants to pick up a child from day care or a church event, Rhodes said.
“It went back to de-escalation,” he said. “He stressed that de-escalation was the most important thing. If you’re afraid it’s going to become physical – going to become violent – contact law enforcement.”
It’s also important to control all entrances to and exits from the church, Rhodes said. Anyone coming into the church should be seen and greeted, not able to sneak in unnoticed.
However, “it’s not so much about the physical security of the building but more about getting your building to a point where you know who is” there, Rhodes addede.
One of the reasons the Martinsville Police Department sponsored the workshop is that “We got concerns from several of the local churches,” Rhodes said. People have been worried about high profile violent acts in churches which had been in national news.
Locally, “there haven’t been many incidences” of danger at churches, he said. There have been some instances in which people had been requested to leave the church property, but “not outwardly violent instances in local churches – and we want to continue on the right path here.”