Church leaders discuss safety with law enforcementFree Access

Christelle Troell

Staff Writer

The nation remains stunned and heartbroken over the unimaginable violence that took place during the Nov. 5 church service in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas. It is a rural town similar to the ones that make up our county.

The worshippers at the First Baptist Church there were gunned down during the Sunday service—26 men, women and children and many others wounded. A local resident who witnessed the tragedy was able to wound the man, identified as Devin Kelley, as he left the church. A chase ensued until Kelley’s car crashed and he apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The tragedy has left church goers here and church school students and parents shocked and fearful.

In response, Senior Pastor Pete Pawelek and Associate Pastor Scotty Smith of Cowboy Fellowship near Pleasanton, invited representatives of area churches to meet with area law enforcement officials to discuss safety measures on Thursday, Nov. 9.

Participating in the round table discussion were Atascosa County Sheriff David Soward, Chief Deputy Lewis Lem of McMullen County, Head of the DPS-Trooper Bobby Bratten,  Pleasanton Police Chief Ronald Sanchez and Jourdanton Police Chief Erik Kaiser.

It was noted there is an array of churches, large and small, and no one-size-fits-all solution. One school official noted that some school personnel attend safety seminars for the schools and that training easily translates to  making churches safer.

Parents of children who attend church schools were very concerned. One church is expecting a visit from a high church official, it was noted. Pleasanton Chief Sanchez reassured them that he will be available at that time.

It was noted that 140 people were killed in churches last year. “We have a high weight on our shoulders—your safety,” Chief Sanchez stated.

A Safety Training Course for the public will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at the Pleasanton Civic Center from 7:00-8:00 p.m.. The course, sponsored by the Pleasanton PD, will explore what civilians can do if caught up in one of these situations, Chief Sanchez stated. The San Antonio Police Department Swat team members and Jourdanton Police Departments will also be on hand.

“We can’t turn lambs into lions overnight,” the police chief noted, promoting gun training.

“The answer is community awareness. If it doesn’t seem right, it isn’t. Follow your instinct,” Sanchez emphasized..

Chief Kaiser answered questions concerning carrying concealed weapons into church sanctuaries. If a person has a license to carry, it is OK to carry it in church unless the church has posted a sign stating NO open carry.

A change has been made in churches, he noted, that volunteers can now work security. He urged churches to have safety plans in place.

Safety plans should cover not only a shooting, but also other emergencies—fire, medical (someone has a stroke or heart attack). Keep a medical kit on hand and be prepared in case of fire, he stated.

Congregations should have a designated place for everyone to go in the event of a fire. That makes it much easier to account for everyone.

Pastor Pawelek urged churches to lock their doors once the service begins and have someone in charge of security. Chief Kaiser also emphasized training and having a safety plan. There are good training videos available he noted.

Sheriff Soward recounted that he had gone to Sutherland Springs on Monday, the day after the shooting, to support County Sheriff Joe Tackitt, who is a friend of his, and was understandably under a lot of stress.

They walked over to the church, Soward stated, and he got a good visual of what happened that Sunday. In the yard, flags were placed everywhere there was a shell casing. There were over one hundred flags.

The shooter fired over 50 rounds in front of the church and 75 rounds on the south side before he went into the church, Soward said.

The church was vulnerable, he noted. The bullets went through the walls everywhere. The people inside didn’t have much of a chance to run, he reported sadly.

The victims ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years, Sheriff Tackitt told him. The shooter used a Ruger AR-556 rifle it was determined.

It was learned later by investigators that the shooter had threatened his mother-in-law, who was a church member there. (She was not at the church that Sunday.)

It is important for large churches to have a security team in place, Soward emphasized.

Following the tragedy, workmen quickly made repairs to the walls of the church and the interior was turned into a memorial to every man, woman and child who perished there.

Pastor Frank Pomero stated to the media that there was too much damage and too many dark memories in the church. The church will be rebuilt.

Area HEB stores are accepting donations to help the people of Sutherland Springs.

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