ST. LOUIS — The shooting and
death of an Illinois Baptist pastor in the middle of a worship service last
year brought Steve Heidke face-to-face with the reality that most houses of
worship are vulnerable as “soft targets” for crimes, including violent ones.
That realization birthed a
recent training on crime mitigation for houses of worship, involving advice
from law-enforcement officials, hosted by Missouri Baptist University (MBU) in
St. Louis. Heidke, the school’s director of public safety, was inspired to ask
MBU officials to host such an event as a result of the shooting.
March 8, 2009, a gunman walked into the First Baptist Church of
Maryville, Ill., and shot Pastor Fred Winters, killing him and wounding two
others and himself in the ensuing struggle. After contemplating the local crime
— Maryville is a bedroom community just across the Mississippi River from St.
Louis — Heidke said he felt “something had to be done.”
“Criminals think of houses
of worship as easy targets, so I brought a proactive and very practical idea of
helping houses of worship crack down on crime to the vice presidents at
Missouri Baptist University, who thought this would be a wonderful outreach
program for our community,” he explained in a May 17 phone interview.
“We had such a great
response that we are considering offering another next year.”
Shortly after the shooting,
Heidke’s home church asked him to develop a plan for the congregation should
something like that ever happen to them. He had already developed a gun-attack
plan for MBU in response to the shooting rampage that killed 32 students and
faculty at Virginia Tech University in 2007.
A couple of area churches
approached him after learning about the plan he had developed for his
congregation. “So I approached the university about doing a workshop for the
region,” Heidke said.
The safety director is a
graduate of the Missouri State Highway Patrol Academy and of Central Missouri
State University’s Traffic Management Institute. He has served with sheriff’s
departments in two Missouri counties and as security director for Monsanto
Chemical Co. He has worked for MBU since 2002.
Drawing on colleagues
Heidke called on his
contacts from 25 years in law enforcement to help with the conference.
enlisted representatives from the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League, the St.
Louis County Sheriff’s Department and the city police department to lead
several workshop sessions.
“We basically tried to teach
them how to make safety a ministry that all could do — to empower all groups in
the church to participate in safety.” Heidke explained. “For example, you can
teach ushers and greeters clues to look for as people come in. People in the
audio-visual box can be taught how to respond and call for help.”
Houses of worship are at
risk for three primary reasons, Heidke said. Large numbers of people regularly
gather in their buildings. Worship centers have a high vulnerability factor,
and they are the “softest” or most vulnerable targets.
More than 100 individuals
representing many kinds of churches and other houses of worship attended the
workshop. It included a review of security concerns, a demonstration for
creating a security ministry and information about local, state and national
law-enforcement resources available to churches, synagogues and mosques.
Workshop leaders encouraged
participants to conduct a comprehensive review of their facilities, to develop
a written assessment of their risk and to tap available resources.
Resources already available
Lack of knowledge about
resources was the workshop’s most surprising aspect for Heidke. “The churches
didn’t really realize what resources are already available free from local law
enforcement, including training,” he said.
Heidke added that most
police departments in larger cities have a community-resource or
community-relations officer on staff who can work with churches. Most county
sheriff’s offices have a similar staff position as well.
He also was surprised to
discover that most local faith groups have no effective way to communicate with
one another in the event of an emergency. “Since Virginia Tech, the
universities have a network to immediately let everyone know. But there is no
community interchange on an interfaith basis to let people know immediately
when something happens,” he said.
Leading different faith
groups to communicate was the best aspect of the workshop, Heidke believes. “It
heightened awareness and it got different faiths to communicate about things
that would improve security,” he said. “It got different faiths to talking.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Brown is associate editor of the
Missouri Baptist Word & Way.)