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Active-shooter scenarios on the minds of local churchgoers

Denton Police Department seminar helps address worries after recent Texas shooting

The large turnout for a crime prevention meeting focused on safety in places of worship Wednesday morning at the Denton Police Department proves one thing: The Sutherland Springs shooting is still fresh on the minds of local churchgoers.

More than 100 people filled a classroom at the Denton Public Safety Training Center as police spokesman Shane Kizer expounded on his usual presentation about church safety. Kizer, who hosts a crime prevention conference for churches and other faith-based groups every year in May, addressed active-shooter situations and security team development within church congregations.

Kizer decided to host the additional meeting this year in direct response to the Nov. 5 shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. A gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, killed 26 people after he opened fire on people inside the church with a military-style rifle.

In the weeks since the tragedy, Kizer has received numerous requests for active-shooter training from concerned residents. Many local churches had already implemented their own small security teams, some of which had to rethink or revamp security policies following the shooting.

The meeting also covered a new Texas law, which was passed during the last legislative session in June, that allows churches to create their own armed security teams instead of hiring private firms. Previously, churches could have armed security only through a professional security firm.

As of Sept. 1, gun owners who have a concealed carry license have been permitted to carry a weapon as part of a church security team, according to the law.

Tom Lawson recently joined the eight-person security team at Open Range Cowboy Church of North Texas in Krum. After the Sutherland Springs shooting, the team held active-shooter training with the entire congregation to teach them how to get on the ground quickly, he said.

"We took the opportunity to talk to the whole congregation about [Sutherland Springs]," Lawson said. "That was the first time we had actually done that -- to let them know that we have a security team and what we expect from them if something were to happen."

Kizer warned against open invitations to security teams, especially with the new law in place. He advocated for hand-picking people who have extensive training with their licensed guns and good decision-making skills.

Lawson spoke about a safety principle that Kizer emphasized during the meeting: Establish a basic security protocol to create expectations for the entire congregation.

Kizer said people typically tend to freeze when they hear gunfire. That's dangerous in any active-shooter scenario, specifically in large assemblies. Uniform safety measures can ensure faster communication and more efficient exit strategies.

"Failure to act is not an option," he said.

Kizer went over the mentality of an active shooter, whose primary goal is typically to kill and injure, and the psychological indicators of a person who may become a shooter.

The potential shooter may first present some type of grievance -- either real or imagined -- and become fixated on it. They may have thoughts about violence as a resolution and possibly discuss those violent fantasies.

Kizer said there's no clear model for identifying patterns of behavior that lead to a shooting. But when someone can't let go of a grievance, "you really need to pay attention to that person," he said. He encouraged people to call police if they see this behavior escalating.

The potential shooter may move into the planning and preparation phases, which includes physical or mental training for the shooting. Finally, the shooter enters the probing and breaching phase, in which he analyzes the security measures at the location.

"When you get to this point ... it's about to happen," Kizer said. "It's not a matter of if, but when."

Kizer went over the most effective survival tactics in a shooting: running, hiding and fighting.

The first and best option is to run to the nearest exit. But if that's not practical at the time, people should be prepared to hide behind legitimate cover (an object that can suppress bullets) or fight for their lives.

"Know your area and know what's available to you if something happens," Kizer said. "Those first few seconds can be critical in whether or not you survive that situation."

Carol and Jerry Glenn had both attended the police department's previous church safety conferences to stay up to date on the procedures. They were at Wednesday's seminar to get some clarification on the new law because they're trying to establish a comprehensive safety plan for their congregation at Lifegate Church.

Lifegate shares the building at 3350 Deerwood Parkway with Spanish-speaking church Mision Templo Bethel.

"We're going to sit down and look at the plan they have [at Templo Bethel] and learn from each other," Carol Glenn said.

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.