When evil walks in: Protecting God's people

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Local safety experts are looking for ways to make sure houses of worship are places of peace. (WLS)

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
Protecting God's people becomes more difficult and dangerous each year; this summer's massacre at a historic African American church in South Carolina left many searching for answers.

The nine people slaughtered by a gunman there are just a part of the yearly death toll for attacks at churches across the country. Now, local safety experts are looking for ways to make sure houses of worship are places of peace.

At Central Illinois' St. Paul Baptist Church, the Safety and Security Ministry is prepping for Sunday services. The security team is everywhere, communicating with earpieces, manning the doors and protecting the parking lots.

"One of our main philosophies is just to be present and available, able to respond if necessary but we don't want to be obtrusive," said Don Knox, security director, St. Paul Baptist Church.

The church has a pastoral protection team - wherever the pastor goes, a member of the security staff isn't far behind, watching.

"Just because this is a house of worship, the bad guys don't care about that so we still have to be prepared," Knox said. "We have to use the gifts that God gave us to make sure that people feel protected, and they feel safe, and they feel secure."

"It is a hot topic and unfortunately, many are unfamiliar until something happens. I think that it is in the back of our mind just to be alert and aware, that that could happen any place in America," said Deveraux Hubbard, pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church.

Experts say violence is increasing at places of worship - with 132 documented deadly incidents nationwide in 2013 and 176 in 2014. It's a problem that's leading national security associations and first responders to develop new practices to keep people safe.

In Chicago, the Jewish Federation put together a security practices manual and hosts twice annual security conferences to make sure congregations are up to date with the latest safety practices. While some institutions are hiring armed security, some solutions are simpler: building upgrades like barriers disguised as planters and security cameras.

"Our challenge, as I think is the challenge for many other religious communities, is to keep our facilities open, warm, and welcoming and not becoming armed fortresses that no one wants to step foot in," said Jay Tcath, executive vice president, Jewish United Fund of Chicago.

In Cook County, the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is organizing training for faith-based communities. And statewide, there's a new pilot program called "Ready Congregation" that's developing best security practices for houses of worship.

Leaders of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview work with local police and have established a neighborhood watch to keep the thousands of people who come to their campus safe.

"It is sad. It is truly sad to talk about safety in places of worship, so to talk about it is painful, but it's more painful to live the tragedy," said Oussama Jammal, vice president, Mosque Foundation.

The state's pilot program will roll out safety recommendations statewide early next year.

Cook County Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Management recommendations:

-Share copies of facility Emergency Operations Plans with the local police and fire departments.

-Invite police and fire department personnel to planning meetings and ask for their guidance and assistance on recommended revisions or improvements.

-Conduct an annual facility tour for the local police and fire departments so that they have a clear understanding of the location of critical systems controls.

-Make sure that they receive any plan revisions and updates; including Points of Contact and Contact information for facility leadership and staff.

-Coordinate with the local police and fire departments to share building floor plans, evacuation procedures, and the location of designated Evacuation Assembly Areas.

-In Emergency Operations Plans identify a primary and two secondary alternate staff personnel to meet and provide guidance and direction to first responders arriving to the facility for an incident response.

-Share plans and conduct drills with staff.

-Maker readily accessible critical information and control access keys or other tools necessary such as facility radio communications systems on site, and available and pre-positioned after hours for access when the facility may otherwise be closed.

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