Safety seminar aimed at houses of worship attracts crowd of more than 100 to Fortuna

Sheriff to attendees: 'If you wait until something happens, it’s too late.'

Security adivsor Edgar S. Castor, with the Department of Homeland Security, spoke to attendess of a seminar about minimal cost ways to make houses of worship safer. (Mary Bullwinkel — for The Times-Standard)
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Law enforcement officers and more than 100 representatives of multiple religious denominations gathered this week at the Fortuna River Lodge and Conference Center to learn about keeping houses of worship safe without making them seem to be uninviting places.

Attendees came from Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties to attend the half-day seminar, sponsored by the Fortuna, Eureka, and Arcata police departments; the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office; the Department of Homeland Security; the FBI and Eureka Rescue Mission.

“We want you to walk away with some tools, strategies and tips to make your environment just a little bit safer,”  Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn said of the event. “You are not alone in this.”

Humboldt County Sheriff Willaim Honsal echoed that statement and added the seminar was about preparedness.

“We want you to have a plan,” he said. “If you wait until something happens, it’s too late.”

Presentations were given by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the Eureka Rescue Mission.

The bottom line is to be prepared.

“Perform a risk assessment and write a plan to guide you,” said Fortuna Police Chief Bill Dobberstein. “It’s a sad state in our society that we have to have this discussion and we need to prevent these tragedies in our houses of worship.”

Dobberstein referred to religious venues as “among the least protected in our community.”

The first step for religious leaders is to determine whether there is a written plan in place. A written plan should be reviewed regularly and should be examined by an expert, such as a member of local law enforcement.

“Local police can assist in performing a risk assessment of the church’s facilities, the neighborhood in which it is located, and taking a look at previous reported incidents,” said Enoch Ibarra, Fortuna Police Department crime prevention specialist. “Discussing ways to assess the risk to parishioners and how to harden sanctuaries against attack may involve simple procedures at minimal or no cost.”

Protective security advisor for the Department of Homeland Security Edgar S. Castor addressed specific ways to increase safety in houses of worship, including lighting, locking doors that are not necessary and using greeters and ushers to perform brief risk assessments of those entering, including members of the congregation.

Other suggestions include locking doors during religious services, cutting back shrubbery, and having key religious personnel going through security training.

“Learning what other churches are doing to increase their security and what has worked for them can help reduce a great deal of frustration and time in developing a plan,” Ibarra said.

The written plan should address who should call law enforcement and when that call should be made. Situations could include a weapon that has been observed or brandished, or threats made.

“A decision should be made before such a situation occurs,” Ibarra said, “(on) how you will communicate and alert other security team members, clergy, and in a worst case, the congregation.”

San Francisco division FBI Special Agent Kyle Biebesheimer spoke about hate crimes, acts of terrorism and active shooters.

“These three do pose a hazard to your house of worship,” he said.

He called on those in the audience to “bridge the gap” in what he called the under-reporting of hate crimes.

“I’m asking you to use your position as community leaders to bring this information to us,” he said, and he also urged communication with local law enforcement. “We are not first responders. Most of the time the first responders are the brave men and women in local law enforcement.”

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