Thursday, August 16, 2018
Public safety

Tampa Bay churches grapple with safety, security after Texas shooting

Chris DeFayette had just gotten home from a smooth morning of services at Mission City Church in Largo when he saw the news.

A shooting at a small church in Texas. Multiple casualties. Information was still rolling in, but the death toll would hit 25 people ages 1 to 77, including a pregnant woman.

A pastor at Mission City texted a news article about it to DeFayette, the church’s security director, sparking a conversation about the church’s own safety protocols.

"Myself and the staff, our biggest thing is first, leading people to Christ, but also protecting the Lord’s house," DeFayette said.

The church decided to hire an off-duty police officer to start attending services, part of a movement by some churches in the Tampa Bay area to re-evaluate and bolster security after that horrific massacre Sunday at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Churches from Largo to Ruskin to Spring Hill have requested officers or inquired about the process to hire one since the shooting, according to law enforcement officials. Others have assessed their strategies and tweaked their protocols in small but meaningful ways to keep attackers out and quell fears for the congregations inside.

"It was such a direct attack on an assembly that was actively engaged in worship," said Largo police Sgt. John Trebino, who runs active shooter classes for civilians. "I think that hit home for a lot of folks."

This Sunday will mark the beginning of Mission City’s new normal with the off-duty cop. The church will foot the bill — standard for off-duty details — which is $44 an hour with a two-hour minimum for Largo and varying amounts for other agencies.

DeFayette, who is also a Clearwater police officer, said the church has for years had a discreet security team made up of current and former law enforcement officers and members of the military stationed around the campus, where 800 to 1,000 people attend services Sunday mornings.

Along with the addition of an officer, he’s considering teaching an active shooter training to staff members, greeters, ushers and volunteers — "just so we are prepared for the worst," he said.

While it can be difficult to plan for the chaos once an attack starts, a uniformed police presence can have a deterrent effect, Trebino said. Those preparing for a killing rampage will often go after vulnerable "soft targets," he said, so law enforcement visibility can make a difference.

The struggle of securing a church comes with the unique balancing act between keeping it open to all while maintaining a safe, fear-free environment, he said. For Trebino, that means driving his police cruiser instead of his personal car to services he attends at Skycrest Community Church in Clearwater, starting this Sunday.

"When you’re a police officer for long periods of time, you want to turn it off for a little while," he said. "We don’t live in a time where I can turn it off as much as I want to."

In Pasco County, the Sheriff’s Office has taken what officials consider a more proactive approach by targeting patrols at and around churches throughout the county. The agency posted a Facebook status the day after the shooting, emphasizing the effort wasn’t in response to any threats but to provide "support and peace of mind to our faith-based community."

"Just the presence of our deputies can bring comfort to those who may feel some concern," said spokeswoman Amy Marinec.

Two churches in Tampa inquired about the process of hiring an off-duty officer, and others have asked how to improve security on their campuses, said police spokesman Eddy Durkin. A church in Ruskin and another in Spring Hill have requested deputies since the shooting, according to the Hillsborough and Hernando county sheriff’s offices.

But even those that haven’t requested help in the form of a uniformed officer have taken steps to reassess and bolster security.

David Hubbart, pastor at First Reformed Church of Tampa, said the church will hold a board meeting Monday to discuss security going forward, such as developing a more solidified safety plan among deacons. Hubbart said he is also considering expanding pastoral counseling to members and their families to alleviate contentious relationships. The Texas gunman had a long history of domestic violence.

The shooting there was especially jarring for Hubbart, who said his neighborhood church in the Town ’N’ Country area that averages about 116 worshipers a week "could have easily been Texas." The church has glass doors that are normally unlocked during services and no formal security team, making it a prime soft target, Hubbart said.

This Sunday, he’s going to lock more doors and remind greeters, ushers and deacons to be extra vigilant. But he emphasized the church is going to keep holding services and trying to make a positive difference in the community.

"The scripture says we walk by faith, and we’ll continue to walk by faith," he said. "We’re not going to allow instances like this to dissuade us from worship."

Staff at New Destiny Worship Center in Clearwater took on a similar attitude. The church, like others in the area, already had a security team in place. The large congregation has turned to faith and prayer, said Ebony McGill, the church’s business administrator.

But the shooting still weighs on her heart, she said — that a safe haven became a place of horror for so many.

"If there’s no house of refuge, then where do they turn to?" she said. "Who can offer that if we can’t?"

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.

Comments
Pasco deputies arrest 21-year-old in deadly Hudson gunfight

Pasco deputies arrest 21-year-old in deadly Hudson gunfight

HUDSON — A 21-year-old man was arrested on a murder charge Thursday night, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, 24 hours after a drug deal turned into a deadly gunfight in an apartment complex parking lot.Anthony Blount of 12424 Hicks Road...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Deputies: Boy, 13, who once brought a gun to school made threats

Deputies: Boy, 13, who once brought a gun to school made threats

The 13-year-old Clair-Mel boy who was arrested for bringing a loaded handgun to Dowdell Middle School back in April now faces even more trouble: He is accused of threatening to conduct a shooting attack against the same school on social media, accord...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Florida Bar investigating one of stand your ground shooter's lawyers

Florida Bar investigating one of stand your ground shooter's lawyers

The Florida Bar has opened an investigation into one of the lawyers who signed on this week to represent Michael Drejka, the man who shot and killed Markeis McGlockton in what authorities at first called a stand your ground case. A spokeswoman for t...
Updated: 2 hours ago
‘I need help now!’ pleads woman in 911 tape from Florida stand your ground shooting

‘I need help now!’ pleads woman in 911 tape from Florida stand your ground shooting

Even before the 911 operator could ask about the emergency, the caller was screaming."Baby! Oh my God!" she yelled, as the operator tried to calmly ask for the address."I need help now! I need help now!" the caller pleaded, her voice cracking in hyst...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Deputies: Wesley Chapel man drowns near Gandy Beach

Deputies: Wesley Chapel man drowns near Gandy Beach

ST. PETERSBURG — A 69-year-old Wesley Chapel man drowned off Gandy Beach on Thursday, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said.Sven Torsell of Betts Drive fell into the water just south of the beach at about 1:30 p.m., deputies said. About a half-ho...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Why does Tampa’s police station smell so much like weed?

Why does Tampa’s police station smell so much like weed?

TAMPA — For the uninitiated, the pungent odor that sometimes hangs in the lobby of the Tampa Police Department headquarters likely goes unidentified.For those with experienced noses, however, the skunky aroma at One Police Center has an unmistakable ...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Missing child alert cancelled for Pasco County children

Missing child alert cancelled for Pasco County children

A Florida Missing Child Alert that was issued for three Dade City children who went missing Wednesday night has been cancelled, according to Dade City Police.The cancellation for the children, ranging in age from 1 to 6, was announced Thursday around...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Federal grand jury indicts ex-Pasco schools bus manager on child porn, enticement charges

Federal grand jury indicts ex-Pasco schools bus manager on child porn, enticement charges

A federal grand jury has indicted a former Pasco County Schools transportation manager on child enticement, production of child pornography and other charges, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.William Matthew Napolitano, 35, of New Port Ri...
Updated: 12 hours ago
Pedestrian fatally struck by car in Tampa

Pedestrian fatally struck by car in Tampa

A pedestrian was killed in Tampa late Wednesday night.According to police, 47-year-old Melvin Allen was walking westbound on the sidewalk in the 1300 block of E Hillsborough Avenue around 11 p.m.. when he stepped onto the road, police say.He was stru...
Published: 08/16/18
‘It is taking people out’: More than 70 people overdose on K2 in a single day in New Haven

‘It is taking people out’: More than 70 people overdose on K2 in a single day in New Haven

Hour after hour, people kept dropping. Sirens blared throughout the afternoon. There were so many overdoses - people passed out, vomiting, convulsing - that emergency workers could hardly sprint fast enough to keep up."Even while we were trying to re...
Published: 08/16/18