DOBBINS HEIGHTS — Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons held a workshop on church safety Tuesday night in response to growing concerns about the vulnerability of churchgoers following a Nov. 5 mass shooting in Texas which claimed 26 lives.
He shared with the roughly 30 residents in attendance what he knew about how average people react in live-shooter situations, and offered advice on things that churches could do to prepare for such a scenario — such as lockdown procedures, changing the way churches greet congregants from friendly to more like a security check — and discussed the legal considerations in having armed people in the pews.
“I’m not talking to you about these things to make you paranoid,” Clemmons said. “I’m talking to you about these things to make you aware.”
Clemmons said that having a plan can help prevent a panic which could make a bad situation even worse. Some of the steps he outlined included:
• having able-bodied men at the front doors as greeters rather than women;
• keeping an eye out for suspicious individuals and having someone preemptively approach them;
• having a rally point for people to meet, should something go wrong;
• making sure that people know the possible exits;
• designating people who can call for a lockdown and having a safe place where a congregation can go;
• designating people to call the police in case of an emergency;
• providing law enforcement with the planning documents for the church so that they can be better prepared for a situation; and
• having people who are trained in first aid present at church services.
On having guns in the church, Clemmons said it’s important to make sure that you know who has a gun, that they are legally permitted to carry that gun, and that they have the proper training and knowledge to be able to handle that gun effectively.
“The dialogue between the congregation and the pastor needs to be serious, it needs to be on point and you have to understand the consequences if a mistake is made,” Clemmons said.
Victor Robinson, a member of St. Mary’s Holiness Church in Dobbins Heights, said he came to the workshop out of concern over the prevalence of violence across the country. He said he wants to make sure that his church’s leadership has people positioned in the right places to be able to alert the congregation of a dangerous situation. Asked if he thought he feels his church is prepared for a live-shooter situation, Robinson said he is now.
“Now I (feel prepared), just by listening and thinking about things that could be done and changed while Sheriff Clemmons was talking and hearing other members who were sharing information,” Robinson said. “It’s more to add to what we already know.”
Clemmons has given at least four talks on church safety in the weeks following the Texas shootings. He has future stops planned in East Rockingham, Cordova, Ellerbe, Hamlet and Rockingham — “whoever calls.”
This is the second round of talks Clemmons has given in as many years, the previous coming immediately after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist killed nine people including the pastor at a black church in July 2015.
Following that talk, Clemmons said he saw people “actively talking about” preparing for a live-shooter situation in a way he hadn’t seen before.
“I’ve seen that people are taking it extremely serious and it’s not just the churches but it’s life in general,” Clemmons said. While this rash of violence across the country has the public more aware of the threat, Clemmons pointed out that mass shootings at churches is nothing new.
Mayor Antonio Blue said he was encouraged by the turnout which showed that people in the community are taking a positive step in making sure that they are prepared for whatever kind of situation may arise in the future.
“Realize that this is a real live issue,” Blue said. “Believe me, it is going to get closer and closer to Richmond County and then one day you’re going to wake up and it’s going to be in Richmond County — so you can either get prepared mentally for it or you can go to sleep at the wheel and when the bus comes you can get hit by the bus.”
Those interested in inviting Clemmons to give a church safety presentation can call the sheriff’s office at 910-997-8283.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]