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Charleston tragedy prompts security concerns

Some pastor already hire armed security; security expert says that's important

Olina Ortega and Austin Gibbs light candles at a sidewalk memorial in front of Charleston'sEmanuel AME Church, where nine people were killed by a white gunman Wednesday during a prayer meeting.
Olina Ortega and Austin Gibbs light candles at a sidewalk memorial in front of Charleston'sEmanuel AME Church, where nine people were killed by a white gunman Wednesday during a prayer meeting. (AP photo by David Goldman)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In light of Wednesday night's massacre at a prayer meeting in a church basement in Charleston, many religious leaders in Jacksonville are thinking about security at their churches and making sure their congregations are safe.

As sad as it is to have to contemplate someone targeting people in a house of worship, they say it's a reality they must face and make sure people who come to them feel safe.

"The Bible says watch and pray. So we have to watch the needs that are happening in today's society to make sure that our people feel safe when they're here," said Pastor Leofric Thomas of Open Arms Christian Fellowship, on Dunn Avenue.

Leofric hires security for every service and event held at Open Arms Christian Fellowship. Some are armed and in uniform, others are undercover. The church spends about $36,000 each year on security.

"Even though we are praying, you may have persons that want to prey on us," Leofric said. "Therefore, we make sure that people will know that, if you walk on the campus or come to the church, the church is not just for the taking."

Leofric is one of several local preachers who have resorted to hiring security personnel. At Evangel Temple Assembly of God on Ramona Boulevard, a police officer sits out front and security patrols the lots.

"We have seen churches contacting (us) and asking for assistance, said Bryan Crosswhite, president of the private security firm 2A0.

2AO, based in Washington, D.C., teaches churches and businesses how to protect themselves. They've gotten a lot of calls since the shooting in Charleston.

"This is not saying we have someone based outside that church at the door with an AR-15 strapped over their shoulder," Crosswhite said. "We are talking about concealed carry. Professionalism is the key to protecting your church and your place of worship."

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith, a retired police officer, used to work as an armed security guard at a local church. He thinks concealed weapons, even in the sanctuary, are important.

"Some people may be alarmed by that carrying a weapon into a church, but most people that have a concealed carry permit are not committing crimes," Smith said. "They are very responsible gun owners and you don't hear much about them committing robberies, shootings, things of that nature."

While Wednesday's mass shooting in Charleston has focused attention on the issue, a study finds that violence in church has been increasing across the country. Researcher Carl Chinn found there were 74 deaths at American churches in 2014 -- that's the most since he's been keeping track. [See statistics]

These have happened across all denominations, which is why so many pastors said it's important to do everything they can to keep the peace.