TRIANGLE, Va. – The statistics are mind-numbing – 417 mass shootings in the United States in 2019, outpacing the number of days in the year. Not surprisingly, attacks in houses of worship throughout the world occurred with greater frequency last year than at any other time in history. From the coordinated bomb blasts on Easter Sunday at churches in Sri Lanka to the attack six days later at a synagogue in California, the news — and realization that sometimes not even our sanctuaries are safe — caught the attention of John O’Connor, OFM.
The reports were disconcerting – describing the vulnerability of churches, mosques, and synagogues as soft targets – prompting John to consider ways to safeguard worshippers at St. Francis of Assisi, where he is pastor. He wasn’t the only one concerned enough to consider creating a level of readiness to protect congregants at weekend Masses.
Parishioner Joe Borger, a 13-year veteran of a federal law enforcement agency, shared similar thoughts. They formed a committee and began collaborating on an emergency security plan for the parish.
John briefed the leader of the Diocese of Arlington, Bishop Michael Burbidge, about the plan when the bishop came to St. Francis of Assisi last fall to administer the sacrament of Confirmation. Shortly thereafter, John was asked to present the emergency security plan to the bishop, top chancery officials, and directors of key areas of the diocese. The emergency security plan developed by John and Borger, with input from other committee members, is being used by the office of risk management as a model for parishes throughout the Arlington diocese.
“It’s no secret that places of worship have always been targets for terrorism and often draw mentally disturbed individuals. The most effective way to prepare for such scenarios is to have pre-positioned security in place for immediate response to either thwart a deadly threat or interdict suspicious and disturbed individuals to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations,” said John, who since 2014 has served as the lead chaplain with the Prince William County Virginia Department of Fire Rescue and holds the rank of battalion chief.
“With many law enforcement officers and agents from federal and local agencies among the St. Francis congregation, it was natural to reach out to these already highly trained individuals who are legally authorized to carry their service weapons while off-duty, and who are permitted to defend life, intercede in felony violations, and detain individuals until local authorities arrive on the scene,” explained John, who has been pastor of this northern Virginia parish since 2016.
“These officers, since they are parishioners, regularly attend Masses. There are always off-duty law enforcement officers in attendance at our weekend Masses, so conceptually, this makes sense because it works,” he added.
The emergency security team consists of certified active and recently retired federal and local law enforcement officers from 11 agencies that include the Secret Service, FBI, DEA, OSI-Armed Forces, Customs and Border Patrol, Prince William County Police, Arlington County Police, Fairfax County Police, Alexandria City Police, Stafford County Sheriff’s Department, and Fairfax County Sheriff’s Department.
“Unfortunately, it’s indicative of the world we live in – churches are becoming more of a target. I felt that it was important to assist Fr. John in developing an emergency response plan in case some type of attack happens at our church,” said Borger, who noted that the members of the security team must be parishioners who are professionally trained officers experienced in law enforcement procedures and weapons training.
“They already have the credentials, they’re certified in firearms, and they’re already vetted by the agencies that employ them,” added Borger, who served in special operations with the U.S. Coast Guard and saw deployment in several theaters including the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“You don’t even notice the law enforcement presence when you walk into the church – and that’s the idea, to be subtle. We blend in with parishioners because we are part of the congregation. We are there in a security capacity in the event that an emergency happens,” said Borger, who outlined the plan in a formal two-page document that serves as a guide for the law enforcement officers who volunteer to serve on the emergency security team.
In addition to already having robust alarm and video surveillance systems in place that cover entrances to the church and school property, all entrance doors to the church are physically locked, with the exception of the main entrance, to prevent outside access during church services.
Under the emergency security plan:
- during all Masses, off-duty law enforcement officers in attendance make their presence known to ushers.
- officers position themselves in the church from vantage points that allow them to execute a unified and rapid emergency response to quell potential threats and to identify suspicious behavior before something evolves into a threat.
- church security officers would first subdue and contain a threat, and after securing the scene, provide medical care, preserve evidence, and safely evacuate the congregation.
- ushers serve as the eyes and ears, notifying officers of a suspicious or mentally deranged individual.
- during a fire or medical emergency, church security officers and ushers would also serve in first-responder roles, helping to evacuate and provide first aid.
No civilians are accepted on the team, even if they have a license to carry a firearm, as Virginia law prohibits civilians from carrying firearms in a house of worship.
The security committee meets periodically to fine-tune its emergency response plans, discussing and reviewing tactics for various responses – such as persons acting in a threatening manner, or worst-case scenario, a live shooter. The committee also works with the Prince William County Police Department and other local agencies to make sure they are updated on the program and aware that off-duty law enforcement officers would be in the church if local authorities respond to 9-1-1 calls.
The security program has resumed now that pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted and churches are permitted to hold in-person Masses with 25 percent capacity.
“Now that we have three on-site liturgies in addition to an online live-streamed Mass, the team of volunteer off-duty officers has resumed activity,” John said. “Unfortunately, evil has many forms and finds its way even into our sanctuaries. Chances are, nothing will ever happen, but if it does, we will be prepared to keep the congregation safe.”
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
- “Franciscans Respond to Attacks on New Zealand Mosques” – March 28, 2019, HNP Today
- “Provincial Leaders Speak Out About Charleston Tragedy, Racism” — July 7, 2015, HNP Today
- “John O’Connor Marks 50 Years as a Friar” — April 16, 2018, HNP Today