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Churches respond to mass shootings with their own armed forces

Emma Gibson, CU News Corps

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Parishioners in Colorado and around the country are questioning what they would do if someone decided to target one of their weekly services or prayer sessions.

Many places of worship in Colorado have responded by creating safety teams to protect their members. No matter the name — active-threat team, life-safety team, security team — the groups’ goals are the same. Members from churches statewide have volunteered to watch for and try to defuse potentially threatening situations during religious events before someone gets hurt. And in some Christian churches, select team members with concealed-carry permits are armed during every event, in case there is a problem.

“I’m hoping that more churches all over the world will begin to practice some type of a safety protocol,” said Marcus Ferrell, the Director of Security and Safety at Potter’s House Church of Denver. “Terrorism is real. And unfortunately, the church is not left out of that discussion.”

It’s been ten years since the last church shootings in Colorado, but the memory is still fresh for many who live here. On Dec. 9, 2007, Matthew Murray went to a missionary training center on the campus of Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada and New Life Church in Colorado Springs, killing two people in each location.

Around 12:30 a.m. Murray asked Tiffany Johnson, the 26-year old director of hospitality at the missionary training center, if he could stay the night. She let him in, but asked him to leave 30 minutes later. When Murray left the building, he shot and killed Johnson and Philip Crouse, 24, and wounded two other staff members before he ran from the scene. He evaded police for the next 12 hours.

Just after 1 p.m. Murray began shooting in New Life Church’s parking lot. As he walked by the vehicles of the 7,000 parishioners preparing to leave, he killed two sisters as they climbed into their family’s minivan. Neither Stephanie Works, 18, or her sister —  Rachel, 16 — survived.

Murray wounded three more church-goers before an armed volunteer on New Life Church’s Life Safety Team wounded him, which led to Murray fatally shooting himself.

After New Life Church’s Life-Safety Team shot Murray “that kinda put an exclamation point on the necessity of having a formal, full-time program here at New Life — what we call Life-Safety,” said Jeff Kowell the Director of Life Safety at New Life Church.

According to a 2016 study published by the University of Alabama, there were 292 mass shootings around the world from 1966 to 2012. Out of those 292 mass shootings, 90 of them occurred in one country — the U.S.. That means 31 percent of the world’s mass shootings happened in the United States.

The definition for mass shooting varies, but in 2013, former President Barack Obama redefined it as a shooting with three or more victims.

From 1982 to today, there have been 86 mass shootings in America’s airports, workplaces, military buildings, schools and churches. Mother Jones tracks mass shootings in an online open-database that updates every five minutes. Before 2013, the database reflects incidents with four or more victims, but it changed its requirements in 2013 to fit Obama’s definition of mass shootings.

According to the database, five mass shootings have occurred in Colorado since 1982. Three of those occurred in the last five years.

Dylann Storm Roof committed the last mass shooting in an American church, killing nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. Mother Jones reported three earlier  mass shootings on U.S. religious property — one in a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012, one in Brookfield, Wisconsin at a Living Church of God in 2005 and one in a Baptist church in Fort Worth, Texas in 1999.

When the amount of victims isn’t a factor, the number of shootings on church property spikes. From 1980 to 2005, there have been 137 shootings in churches, and three have been in Colorado. This is according to a church shooting database published by the Center for Homicide Research.

In 1991 there was a church shooting in Wheat Ridge, followed by a shooting at a Methodist Church in Fort Collins in 1992. The third church shooting occurred in Colorado Springs in a Catholic church.

The 2007 shootings in Aurora and Colorado Springs bring the total number of church shooting in Colorado up to five.

The Potter’s House Church of Denver has a three-part security plan, Ferrell said. From each service, two to eight officers from the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department and uniformed security guards stand guard, as well as  volunteers from the church’s Safety Team. The first priority for anyone on these teams is to watch over the flock, which can swell to as many as 2,000 people per service.

Ferrell said the officers are first and foremost there to secure the church’s offering and help direct traffic, but they’re also the first responders in case a threat occurs on the church’s 11-acre campus. The Potter’s House’s contract with the Sheriff’s Department only applies to church events, but during the week a uniformed security team protects the church’s staff and school. Ferrell said each team member is armed with a gun.

But, only a portion of the 15 to 20 volunteers that make up the Safety Team during an average service have guns. Three to five of these members have their concealed carry permit and are armed during church events, Ferrell said. He chooses these members based on their history with firearms, their character, and their ability to talk someone down before any weapons are drawn. Coincidentally, most of these members are retired military and law enforcement.

Ferrell decided if there was a situation on church property, the number of armed Safety Team members needed to be low in order to reduce loss of life.

“You’re already dealing with chaos if you have to use your weapon,” Ferrell said.  “And then to think about what’s beyond your target in the event that you do not hit your mark are innocent people.”

Ferrell said Potter’s House Church of Denver always had security precautions in place, but the 2007 shootings on Faith Bible Chapel and New Life Church campuses that spurred them to increase their security.

New Life Church increased their Life-Safety team as well. Kowell did not want to say how many members the team has, but he said it’s five-times the size it was before the shooting.

“Back in 2006, the thought of churches having violence was pretty far-fetched,” Ferrell said. “From that point to today, it seems like it’s almost every week in the news you hear about the church having some type of crime occurring.”

After the 2007 shootings,the safety teams at New Life Church and Potter’s House Church in Denver started training with a new purpose.

In their quarterly trainings, Ferrell’s team members focus on how to respond when other non-Safety Team members produce a weapon, because sometimes people try to help stop the threat on their own. The group also learns how to lock-down the church, how to deescalate a verbal or physical threat and how to guide the crowd in the event of an emergency — be it an active-shooter or a fire.

Both Ferrell and Kowell require armed volunteers to pass two range qualifications per year in order to remain on the team.

“With the climate of society [a domestic dispute] can erupt into something with weapons,” Ferrell said.

The goal of a safety team, Kowell said, is “to keep the peace.”

“‘Watchfulness’ is probably one of the keywords that make this program work,” he said.

But, megachurches aren’t the only houses of worship that could benefit from adopting security protocols and training their parishioners, Ferrell said.

He said he believes that no matter the size of the congregation, at least one person should be trained to respond to an emergency. A small prayer meeting incited Dylan Roof to shoot nine people in the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina incident.

Kowell and other safety directors at religious organizations in Colorado Springs created the Faith-based Security Coalition to better connect places of worship to each other and the Colorado Springs Police Department during a crisis.

The group of leaders from Christian churches, a mosque and a synagogue established the coalition so that no one would have to build up their security protocols alone.

“Why re-invent the wheel when someone else is doing something great,” Kowell said.

Some religious institutions said keeping their security precautions private is the best defense against a possible threat.

At Temple Sinai in Denver, Jody — who did not want to divulge her last name for privacy reasons — chose not to comment on the security measures at the synagogue.

The Facility Manager at Faith Bible Chapel, Jeff Galasso, chose not to comment on the details of the church’s security precautions, but he said there are five police officers on the property during church events. These officers help with traffic and security.

Because Faith Bible Chapel had an active-shooter on its campus in 2007, Galasso said he hopes the police presence will deter future tragedies.

“In February we had some vandalism at the mosque. Someone threw a rock into one of our windows, and since then we’ve decided to take extra security precautions,” said Iman Jodeh, the spokesperson for the Colorado Muslim Society.

But she, too, chose not to disclose the specifics when questioned about them.

She said the Department of Justice and private security firms reached out to other mosques in the area to help prepare parishioners for bomb threats, active-shooters and vandalism.

“If a mosque, or any place of worship, is located in a place where there are threats at a much higher level, then yes, I think armed safety groups makes sense,” Jodeh said. “But then again, I think every case is different, and that’s something each place of worship needs to measure for themselves before determining if that is the right protocol.”

The spokesman for the Fort Collins Police Services, Lt. Jim Byrne, said “waiting for police officers to respond will not always be timely in a critical situation. I think it’s a wise thing for organizations to do, as long as there’s some balance.”

The balance Byrne spoke of referred to a balance between paranoia and preparedness.

He also said it’s “a valuable tool” for a safety team, well-trained in emergency response, to already be on the scene of an active-threat. He noted that they need “mindset” and situational training.

If a safety teams knows how to respond to the arrival of law-enforcement, on top of being able to responsibly handle an emergency before FCPS arrives, it’s easier for its officers to understand the situation and get it under control.

Regardless of the incident, Byrne said a volunteer needs to handle a situation appropriately and know when to talk someone down and when to take physical action.

When church members disagree with the idea of an armed protection detail during services at Potter’s House Church of Denver, Ferrell “refers them to Christ.” He re-tells the story of Jesus’ arrest and emphasizes Peter had a weapon and cut of the centurion’s ear.

“Peter was basically like a bodyguard. Peter was the armed security that rolled with these disciples.”

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Explanatory Multimedia Reporting from CU Boulder Journalism Students
Churches respond to mass shootings with their own armed forces