Houses of worship learn to protect themselves

  • Thomas Gillan, an expert on church safety and security, speaks Tuesday at the Northampton Senior Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Thomas Gillan, an expert on church safety and security, speaks Tuesday at the Northampton Senior Center during a training conference organized by the Northwestern district attorney’s office held to address safety at places of worship. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A police vehicle is posted near the Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. AP PHOTO/Matt Rourke

Staff Writer
Published: 3/5/2019 11:53:22 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Many churches and houses of worship are uniquely positioned within a community because they welcome people of diverse backgrounds in pursuit of spiritual growth.

These institutions, however, have a “unique vulnerability” because of their welcoming nature, Thomas Gillan, an expert on church safety and security, told faith leaders and law enforcement officials at the city’s senior center on Tuesday. The Northwestern district attorney’s office and Northampton Police Department invited Gillan as part of a training conference addressing safety at places of worship.

“Does anybody know the number one vulnerability that places of worship have?” Gillan asked the large crowd on hand. Audience members guessed financial fraud and children, but Gillan said they were wrong.

“It’s that everybody is welcome,” said Gillan, a trainer for the Florida security firm Training Force USA.

In recent years, mass shootings at houses of worship have shocked the nation. In Pittsburgh, 11 people were killed in October 2018 at the Tree of Life Congregation. In Sutherland Springs, Texas, 26 people were killed in November 2017 at the First Baptist Church. In Charleston, South Carolina, nine people were killed in 2015 at the Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“The chances of an active shooter coming in your place of worship is very slim,” Gillan said, though he encouraged law enforcement officials and faith-based organizations to work together in developing safety procedures and protocols to be prepared for potentially dangerous situations.

Throughout the daylong conference, Gillan spoke about common crimes committed in faith communities such as burglaries, vandalism and different forms of abuses. Sessions covered areas such as protecting children, violence and mental illness, and staff training in verbal de-escalation skills and responding to an active shooter.

Three years ago, when Northampton Police Lt. Craig Kirouac became the department’s religious liaison, he began by giving general safety and security presentations to local religious institutions. Kirouac and other police officers also completed site assessments to determine the effectiveness of churches’ security measures.

“Being prepared for anything is the biggest thing,” Kirouac said in an interview. “The training has been excellent and it’s looking at the whole scope of security – vandalism, internal problems, employee problems, or people on the street disrupting the assembly.”

Two deacons for the First Church of Christ in Longmeadow attending Tuesday’s conference, Mary Friedman and Anne Landry, said that their church developed a safety plan in 2002 and they now are working on updating their church’s safety protocols.

“We want to form a safety and security ministry to develop a plan that includes what would happen if there were an active shooter threat as well as looking at all our safety policies to be sure they are updated and the best they could possibly be,” Landry said.

Friedman said that their church is working with the Longmeadow Police Department to update its safety protocols. The school resource officer in Longmeadow has done a walkthrough of the church with its pastors and custodian, Friedman said, and the ministry team will undergo training with the school resource officer as well.

“We’ve put some security measures in place over the past number of years in terms of cameras and areas that are locked at certain times because we have a nursery school,” Friedman said.

Addressing representatives from nearly 100 law enforcement agencies and faith-based organizations, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said developing strong relationships in the community are an important part of keeping a community safe.

“The best thing about Northampton is we know how to approach problems and that’s through community and through collaboration. This is a great example of how we address really complex issues,” Kasper said.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at

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