Rethinking security: Area churches step up their game

Local law enforcement officers say they rely on people within the congregation who are willing to keep a lookout

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AUSTINTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Violent church attacks like the one in Texas are making local churches think hard about the measures they take to keep members safe.

Sgt. Cristobal Ruiz said police have always monitored churches in the Canfield area but now they’re increasing their presence around town.

Canfield police actively patrol churches during their hours of worship. Some officers will sit in the parking lots, while others may get out and interact with the congregation.

Their intention is to help Canfield church-goers feel protected and show them police are aware and engaged.

“There’s no doubt that our presence is designed to send a message so if anyone is considering some type of criminal activity, that they are going to be confronted with officers that are there to protect the community,” Ruiz said.

Church security is also a big priority for police in Austintown. They say training and vigilance can help minimize or prevent problems. But law enforcement officers admit churches can be difficult to protect.

“What makes our churches great is the openness and the welcoming of the people who go there. But what makes them great also is a vulnerability,” Lt. Bill Hoelzel said.

Last year, Hoelzel got specific church security training. It’s subtle and relies on people within the congregation who are willing to keep a lookout.

“You’re really just trained observers,” he said. “You’re great witnesses and people who have a heart to look out for other members of their church.”

Hoelzel trained Highway Tabernacle in Austintown months ago.

“We put people outside, we put people inside the perimeter, we put people inside this room,” Pastor Gary Gray said.

Last Sunday, however, their protocols were put to the test. Police say Johanan Pandone and Heather Bara, who are accused of stealing from St. Christine’s Church that same day, stopped at Highway Tabernacle before heading to Youngstown.

“We had a sense that there might not be something right, that they might have some sort of ill up their sleeve,” Gray said. “Our team caught them and, with kindness, said, ‘Hey, let’s wait ’til after the service, we can talk about this.'”

Hoelzel said that’s when the pair decided to leave.

“And then went on to criminalize another local church.”

Gray said that’s exactly how their plan is supposed to work.

“It’s not about vigilantes trying to show their strong arm. It’s about good planning, intentional planning, to stop something before it picks up speed.”

He hopes more area churches take on this training and implement it in their houses of worship. Gray doesn’t want the fear of something happening to stop people from coming to church.

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