Citing recent high-profile shootings across the country, a Tennessee sheriff has introduced a new plan to train parishioners as law enforcement officers.
Under the “Church Protection Plan,” churches in Bradley County in southeastern Tennessee can nominate parishioners to serve as special deputies during Sunday services.
“The chances of a violent shooting occurring in a church are remote, but it can and has happened,” Sheriff Tim Gobble wrote in a statement. “If this program helps save a life or prevent a shooting, it will be worth it.”
Two people were killed and seven wounded when a gunman opened fire at a Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tenn., about 80 miles north of Bradley County, on July 27.
Under the program, churches with nonprofit status and more than 50 parishioners would have the option of submitting two names to the sheriff’s office to serve as “special deputies.”
If appointed, special deputies would be required to participate in 40 hours of training each year, and would be authorized to carry firearms. Their authority would be restricted to church services and events.
Some county commissioners have questioned the program, saying it rests on a fragile legal framework.
“I’m very concerned about the county’s liability, but I’m equally concerned about the church’s liability,” county attorney Joe Byrd said, according to the local Cleveland Banner newspaper.
According to Chief Deputy Bill Dyer, the program existed for more than a century, and the new deputies will come at no price to the taxpayer.
“Any time we have a large gathering of citizens, whether it be a church or a block party, or a fireworks demonstration, or a parade, the potential is there for a lot of people to be injured,” said Dyer. “So we’re trying to protect citizens wherever they gather.”
Church security has become a thriving business in the United States, with many megachurches employing security guards to protect parishioners. Last December, a shooter killed four people in a pair of shootings in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Although Dyer said there have been no recent threats made against churches in Bradley County, churches have been quick to sign up, he said.