Black churches ‘ratcheting up’ security

The Rev. Myra Meggett points Thursday to one of the bullet holes in the main sanctuary window of Bethel AME Church on James Island.

Bullet holes discovered last week in windows of three James Island churches and last month’s shooting deaths of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston have black congregations reconsidering safety procedures.

“There’s no fear. There’s just a racheting up of what’s already going on. Overall across the Episcopal District, security is a priority now,” said the Rev. Joe Darby, presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the AME Church and first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating bullet holes found at James Island United Congregational Church and Mt. Sinai Evangelistic Church.

“Based on physical evidence, they are more than likely connected,” Maj. Eric Watson said.

He declined to be more specific.

No witnesses have been located or suspect identified, he said.

Charleston police are investigating bullet holes found in a window at Bethel AME Church but have not confirmed a definite connection to the others.

“The vandalism at Bethel AME may be related to the ones being investigated by the Sheriff’s Office,” police spokesman Charles Francis said Monday.

Darby said he doesn’t think the bullet holes in windows at the three churches are part of an organized effort at intimidation in response to the state’s decision earlier this month to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds following the mass killing at Emanuel AME.

But new church security sessions began the week that the flag came down. Some churches are working with the State Law Enforcement Division and local law enforcement while others are hiring private security firms. And a few are opting for armed parishioners or clergy.

“What best suits their situation because it’s not a one-size-fits-all,” Darby said. “One of the churches in my district came up with their own interesting solution. They’ve got about five guys with concealed-weapons permits. Anytime anything is going on on campus, they have someone that is armed.

“It’s a matter of security, so I can’t really say too much about that. Suffice it to say that if anyone comes into some churches now armed and dangerous, they might get to heaven quicker than they want to.”

By law, concealed-carry weapons are allowed in South Carolina churches with a SLED permit and the permission of the church governing board.

Berkeley County sheriff’s Lt. Frank Jackson said extensive training is needed in how to handle a gun in a crisis situation. There are less lethal methods of defusing a situation, such as pepper spray and hand-to-hand combat, which also require training, he said.

Jackson, the Sheriff’s Office accreditation manager and Homeland Security officer, teaches an eight-hour seminar in church security at Trident Technical College. Surveillance cameras and a standard operating procedure during an emergency are important, he said.

The Rev. George Coleman, pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, said he is against concealed weapons in church unless the firearm handler is thoroughly trained in crisis management.

“Think long and hard about all the things that could possibly go wrong,” he said.

Training in how to defuse a confrontation with a person who is possibly mentally ill is just as important as being able to fire a gun, he said.

Edwin Lugo, an adjunct professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at The Citadel, said whoever fired at the church windows meant to intimidate.

“This may be a signal from just one or two disturbed individuals. They are utilizing the acts of intimidation as a force multiplier. They know the anonymity of it makes it scarier,” he said.

From the evidence, information available so far is insufficient to label the church window shootings a hate crime although that may be the case.

“There are far too many variables,” he said.

Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said bullet holes in windows of churches that are home to black congregations seem suspicious after the nine slayings at Emanuel AME and the Confederate flag controversy.

“It does make you wonder if someone is targeting African-American churches. It’s difficult to blame the black community for being extremely worried about this,” he said.

Dave Munday contributed to this report. Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711 or Twitter.com/prentissfindlay.