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Tampa Bay churches grapple with safety, security after Texas shooting

Mission City Church in Largo has decided to hire an off-duty police officer to provide security during services. CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times
Mission City Church in Largo has decided to hire an off-duty police officer to provide security during services. CHERIE DIEZ | Times
Published Nov. 13, 2017

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 Follow @kathrynvarn.