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Churches prepare for threat of violence

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There was a time when people of faith seeking respite from the violence and disquiet in the world around them or a measure of comfort for internal conflicts and anxieties could count on sanctuary and solace in places of worship.

And while that remains true for the most part, it is not a certainty in today’s troubled world. Brutal behavior does not respect the sanctity of churches, temples and mosques. Now, sacred spaces, as well as schools, are soft targets for the vengeful, the hateful, the fanatical and the deranged.

“They’re easy pickings because people who go to schools and churches are not going to be armed,” said Todd Patton, a reserve officer and chaplain with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and pastor of Albuquerque’s Promise Community Church. “Church doors are not supposed to be locked. Churches are supposed to be welcoming. Just come on in. You can still maintain that. You just have to be cautious. All kinds of violent things are going on – even within churches.”

Todd Patton, a reserve officer and chaplain with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and the pastor of an Albuquerque church, takes a knee next to Copper, his therapy dog. Patton will teach participants at Saturday’s conference how to react during and after attacks. (Courtesy of Todd Patton)

Patton is among those who will be presenting programs at the 10th Annual Place of Worship Threat Survival Conference on Saturday, Oct. 20, at Calvary Church, 4001 Osuna NE. He is an instructor, as is Vince Harrison, Calvary Church’s safety director, with Global One Defense, the security company that is conducting the survival conference.

Patton served 20 years active duty with the sheriff’s office. As a reserve officer, in addition to his chaplain duties, he runs a peer-support program and works with his therapy dog, Copper, a 3-year-old chocolate Labrador, in stress debriefings and public relations.

Harrison was with the Albuquerque Police Department 21 years, retiring as a detective, and has been involved in safety and security at Calvary for 20 years.

“I wanted to share what we did at Calvary with other churches,” Harrison said. “If I were to walk into a church and pull a gun, what would you do? How do you react to a homeless person screaming and taking people’s purses? We teach the basics of de-escalation, basic gun and knife disarmament, how to defend yourself. Don’t become a victim, become a victor.”

Warrior mentality

Harrison said last year’s conference drew 125 people from 100 places of worship, including representatives from a mosque. Most of the participants are from New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Colorado.

This year’s guest speaker is Kirk Carpenter, superin-tendent of the Aztec, N.M., schools, the target of a December 2017 shooting that killed two Aztec High School students before the shooter took his own life.

Conference topics include “The Threat is Real: Domestic and Transnational Terrorism Attacks on Places of Worship,” “Active Shooter Survival” and “Threat of Improvised Explosive Devices.”

Harrison will present a program titled “Place of Worship Security Team: Selection and Retention.” Patton’s program is “Combat Warrior Mentality and Combat First Aid During and After an Attack.”

“Warrior mentality is getting people to see and understand that when it comes down to it, you can fight for your life,” Patton said. “It is focusing on the fight system if you are cornered and out of all other options. We talk about improvised weapons – or actual weapons if you are allowed to carry them. You don’t have to curl up and die. You can fight.”

Battle of the blood

In 2017, a man shot to death 26 people and wounded another 20 at a Baptist church in Texas. In 2015 nine people were shot and killed in a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., and in 2012 six members of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin were fatally shot.

Here in New Mexico, in August 2015, a homemade bomb exploded in a mail box at a Las Cruces Baptist church just prior to Sunday services and about 20 minutes later another bomb blew up in a trash can near the entrance of a Las Cruces Catholic church while Mass was in progress. No one was injured in either bombing.

But these are just a few of the violent incidents aimed at places of worship in the country in the last half dozen years.

“No one ever anticipated this,” Patton said. “One reason we do these conferences is to bring awareness to the current situation. It is unpredictable. We still come across pastors who say, ‘That would never happen here.’ But what if it did happen? Are you prepared? We are not talking about people being armed with rifles at the door. We are talking about awareness. We are talking about trauma bags.”

Trauma bags, Patton said, are kits stocked mostly with bulky dressings, gauzes and other materials designed to staunch heavy bleeding.

“There are two battles, the battle of the bullets and the battle of the blood,” he said. “You can win the battle of the bullets and lose the battle of the blood. We talk about how to apply tourniquets, how to stop the bleeding long enough for fire and rescue to get there.”

Patton said security situations vary from large churches such as Calvary, which has 15-person safety teams, to smaller churches such as his own. But it boils down to being alert and being prepared.