Warren police, church leaders discuss active shooter response

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published December 1, 2017

 An overview of preparing church facilities, and those who attend services there, for a crisis involving a deadly threat was provided by Warren Police Sgt. Bill Reichling and Deputy Commissioner Matt Nichols.

An overview of preparing church facilities, and those who attend services there, for a crisis involving a deadly threat was provided by Warren Police Sgt. Bill Reichling and Deputy Commissioner Matt Nichols.

Photo by Brian Louwers

WARREN — Would you know what to do if you came face-to-face with an armed gunman at church?

Religious leaders from nearly four dozen Warren congregations spent an hour at City Hall Nov. 29 thinking about the unthinkable. In the weeks to come, they’ll get an opportunity to meet with trained police officers, and to consider what they can do to save lives in the critical first seconds and minutes of a potential confrontation with an active shooter.

“We’re here to provide an overview of training for an active-threat response,” Warren Police Commissioner Bill Dwyer said. “We’re here to better inform you of what you can do to save lives and offer more training to you, and actually come out to your place of worship and make a presentation.”

Every plan, Warren police commanders said, will be different. An overview of the assessment process and some universal concepts for preparing facilities, and those who attend services there, for a crisis involving a deadly threat was provided by Deputy Commissioner Matt Nichols and Sgt. Bill Reichling.

“Anyone will tell you that the police can’t be everywhere all the time, and the best response can be 30 seconds or 60 seconds out,” Nichols said. “What we’re trying to do here is not provide a cookie-cutter solution for all problems, at all times, at all places. What we need to do is find a way to identify issues and provide you an opportunity to identify and recognize and respond appropriately to mitigate the circumstances.”

Reichling took the more than 100 people assembled through a presentation that illustrated a growing trend in the prevalence of mass shootings and violence in places of worship. He said that through August 2017, there had been 173 violent crimes reported ths year at religious centers across the country.

That number doesn’t include the Nov. 5 shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where an armed gunman, identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, allegedly murdered 26 men, women and children gathered for a church service and wounded 20 more.

“What we have to do is learn. We have to learn from these tragic incidents,” Reichling said. “Every facility is different. Every building has different points of ingress and egress, in and out, and different parishioners. We can’t give you a one-size-fits-all solution for everything, but what we can give you is the tools to help you come up with a plan to prepare in your facility.”

Reichling said situations involving active shooters are “fluid and dynamic.”

“They happen fast. If you knew there was going to be a shooter at Sutherland Springs church on Nov. 5 at 11:30, we would cancel church. There’s no notice given on these things,” Reichling said. “And that’s what you have to get your mind set for, right away. You have to be able to alter your plan and know that it’s fluid.”

Escape is always the best option, if it can be done quickly and safely. If not, hiding in a secure location until help arrives is another choice.

The key, Reichling said, is that you must do something. When the “fight, flight or freeze” instinct sets in and manifests in physiological effects including a spike in blood pressure, hearing loss, hastened breathing and loss of coordination, he said shutting down is no way to survive. Run. Hide. Be a leader and let your voice be heard alerting others to danger and directing them to flee. If there is no other choice, he said fighting back with all your heart, using improvised weapons — a chair, a fire extinguisher, church hymnals, anything — may be required to ensure your survival.   

“You’ve got to believe what you’re seeing. You don’t have time to sit there and process it,” Reichling said. “Quick reactions are what save lives in active shooter situations. The police will be there. We will be there as soon as we can. I can tell you, especially in this city, if a call like this goes out, we’re wearing out the horses to get to you. We’ll be there as soon as we can. You need to buy us time.”

Attendees were asked to fill out a form and were invited to schedule a consultation with a police officer to better identify further steps that individual places of worship can take to protect their congregations.

A question-and-answer session raised important points, including the usefulness of alerting church ushers to be aware of any suspicious activity.

Many of the assembled leaders said they’d already taken steps to create a security team or an action plan in the event of an emergency, but that they welcomed an opportunity to meet with the police.

“I thought it was fantastic. I thought it was very informative. I thought it was helpful, discussed things that we need to talk about, forcing us to consider the stuff we wish we didn’t have to think about,” said Tim Berlin, senior pastor at Warren’s Faith Baptist Church.

Berlin said such matters weren’t part of the conversation when he joined the ministry 26 years ago.

“Yet, in the last several years, we’ve had to be vigilant,” Berlin said.

He added that he considers preparedness in the wake of events like the tragedy in Sutherland Springs as “kind of like insurance.”

“Sometimes you wonder if it’s really worth it, and then when something like Sutherland Springs happens you say, ‘I’m glad I have it.’”

Ray Cook, an elder at Warren’s Seventh-Day Adventist Church, said he thought the presentation was “proactive.”

“I’m very excited about the offering of the free training for the churches, because I think that will be very beneficial for us,” Cook said.

The Rev. Julie Delezenne, of the First Presbyterian Church of Warren, said the leadership team at the church discussed security in the wake of the recent shooting in Texas, but that the presentation illustrated the need to refresh an existing emergency plan.

“This was a jolt to say we need a refresher, and to look and see what we have, and make sure we’re up to date and that everyone knows what to do in case of an emergency,” Delezenne said.