ALLOUEZ — A lone gunman entered the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2017, opening fire on the congregation, killing 26 people and wounding another 20.
It wasn’t the first mass shooting at a house of worship, but it was the deadliest in U.S. history. It led Jason Weber, a 30-year law enforcement veteran, to begin a program aimed at preventing mass shootings at houses of worship.
“I was a police officer at the time when Sutherland Springs happened and I called a good friend, John Flannery, who has worked with the (Green Bay) diocese,” said Weber. “We talked about Sutherland Springs and said (we) should look at doing something for churches. There were a lot of programs for schools and for businesses at the time, but there really wasn’t anything for churches.”
The conversation turned into the House of Worship Safety and Security Conference, which gives church personnel, including pastors, ushers and greeters, information on preventing and deterring active shooter events. The third annual conference will take place in March 2020 in Green Bay, said Weber, who is now public safety training coordinator at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
On Aug. 21, Weber offered a presentation for diocesan employees on preparedness, response and recovery in the event of an active shooter. More than 50 people attended the “active shooter lunch and learn workshop.”
During his presentation, Weber offered FBI statistics about active shooter events. He said that between 2000 and 2018, 280 active threats (events involving one or more persons engaged in killing or attempting to kill multiple people) have taken place in the United States. Most of the attacks (42%) have happened in commercial or business locations such as malls or theaters. About 20% have been at schools and 4% at churches.
Weber said mass shooters tend of have a common profile: 97% are male and around 33 years old. School attackers, however, tend to be between 15 and 19.
“Most have an avenger mindset, they are upset with something,” he said. “Basically, they are a ticking time bomb. So detecting a threat is the first task.”
According to Weber, mass shootings are rarely sudden or impulsive acts. The shooters usually plan their attacks and leave warning signs.
Weber said that most active shooter response programs focus on what to do during an attack. He said he trains people to follow a five-step program:
- Detect: Identifying the potential threats. This might include identifying a disgruntled associate. In the case of a parish, it may be an employee, parishioner or spouse in a domestic dispute.
- Deter: Weber said this involves evaluating a church structure and finding a balance between safety/security and offering a welcome atmosphere. Another example of deterrence would involve ushers greeting people. “They (attackers) case places, so (ushers should be) trained to see suspicious things, things out of place,” he said.
He gave the example of Festival Foods employees, who follow a “10 tile” rule. If an employee is within 10 tiles (feet) of a customer, he or she is required to look the customer in the eye and ask if the person needs help. By making face-to-face contact with people, it may deter a potential attack, said Weber.
- Delay: By conducting a property risk assessment, churches can reduce opportunities for crime, said Weber. Law enforcement officials call this step “crime prevention through environmental design” (CPTED).
- Respond: People need to be aware of their surroundings in order to respond, said Weber, which he called “situational awareness.” When an incident occurs, he said people have three options: avoid, deny and defend.
Avoid involves escaping, even by breaking a window. Deny involves blocking the entrance to a room. In the event the intruder comes face-to-face, Weber said using whatever means to fight back is necessary. He said having a concealed carry handgun is an option, but only if a person is trained to use it.
- Recover: According to Weber, mental health response is critical following trauma such as a mass shooting. He said that law enforcement members have learned that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has led to addictions and even suicide if not addressed.
Weber was among those responding to the Trestle Trail shooting in Menasha in 2015, which took the lives of three victims.
“I hate it,” he said. “Every year on May 3 I have a hard time working. It hits home.”
It also motivates him to help prevent future incidents.
Weber said it is important for religious organizations like the Diocese of Green Bay to be proactive “because you want to think about this ahead of time. The more you think about it, God forbid it ever happens, you kind of react just a little bit more quicker because you’ll have that plan.”
In addition to sponsoring the annual House of Worship Conference, Weber has led security surveys at 26 area churches.
“What that entails is a meeting with church leaders about the church and activities followed by a walk-through of their property,” he said. “I look at ways to mitigate and bolster their security and safety. Once that is done I complete a report for them with suggestions.”
He plans to meet with staff at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay in September. Weber has also published three “active threat” resource manuals, including one for houses of worship. All are free and available by download at gooddrugsgonebad.com, under the “resources” tab.
Weber told The Compass that while there are disagreements about how to prevent mass shootings, preparedness is essential.
“Every time one of these events happens in the United States, you get finger pointing. I’d be surprised if we ever settle on an answer and solve it,” he said. “Let’s get ahead of it, let’s try to prevent it, let’s raise the awareness, let’s see if we can try to pick up some of these warning signs, because the statistics and data show that there are warning signs.
“Getting rid of guns — is that going to solve it?” he asked. “Probably not, because they’ll go to something else. Locking up everybody with mental health issues, is that going to solve it? No. We have to raise the awareness and build the relationships. When we do security surveys, we tell the churches, build the relationships with your local police department. And the big thing is to pray.”
Editor’s note: Parishes interested in holding a free security survey or learning more about the House of Worship conference can contact Jason Weber at (920) 498-7175 or [email protected]