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Tragedies force churches to prepare for unimaginable – an active shooter

From the spot where he is standing, Jon Longwell can see every person in every chair. He is the lead pastor at Grace Church in the Town of Tonawanda, and the roughly 170 people who fill the seats in front of him every Sunday are his responsibility. His worldview is shaped by the Bible, and so is his view on his job. He believes a pastor is a shepherd, and a shepherd has three responsibilities: to feed, to guide and to care for the flock.

Feeding is the sermon that he delivers from this spot every Sunday. Guiding is helping people find their way to what Longwell describes as “a closer walk with Jesus.”

Caring is, in part, protecting – and the reality of what that could mean is wrenching. Attacks at places of worship, while drawing understandably massive public attention, are exceptionally rare. But the sheer notion of it happening is enough to prompt Longwell to be proactive. He has a concealed carry permit and has debated with himself whether he should tuck a firearm somewhere beneath the casual attire he wears while preaching. He’s talked about it with a pastor friend, and he’s been advised to do it, but admits, “I’m not there yet.”

He’s not there, but he is here: Standing at the pulpit on a Sunday evening, looking at those seats, which tonight are filled mostly with members of his church security team, who were sitting quietly, their faces shielded by black protective masks.

Longwell scanned the room, and broke the silence.

“This is bizarre,” he said.

At that very moment, a man rose from the seats with an angry scream, raised a gun into the air, and fired.

* * *

Longwell and his security team at Grace Church were participating in an active shooter training session run by Defensor Inc., a company founded in 2015 by a veteran and a police officer. At its Grand Island facility, Defensor holds firearms training sessions, ranging from pistol permit classes to close-quarters battle to military training for cinema. Many of the courses take place in a simulated house, fashioned with plywood walls, where students learn how to clear a room and, depending on the intensity of the training, take down an assailant.

Defensor also conducts on-site training for organizations such as churches, where they train – and sometimes help select – a security team, and develop an emergency response plan specific to the layout of the building. Depending on the extent of the training, the sessions also may include instruction on behavioral detection, situational awareness, combat-style first aid, how to effectively call 911, and what to say – and not say – to police when they arrive.

Defensor allowed a Buffalo News reporter to shadow and participate in training sessions that involved several churches, both at its headquarters and on-site, with the understanding that details about specific church security teams and response plans be omitted.

One of those training sessions took place at Grace Church, where the Defensor team spent four hours working with Longwell and members of his security ministry.

The session began with a classroom-style slideshow and video review of first-aid tactics led by Stephen Felano, one of Defensor’s three partners and the only one who is a civilian, and followed up with hands-on instruction from David DiTullio, the company’s chief operations officer and an Army combat veteran.

“We’re a big proponent in the military of self-aid before buddy aid,” DiTullio told the group. “As soon as I take a shot, if I know what I’m doing, I can already start slowing my blood down with my belt. I can use my shoelaces. I can get real creative. I can take shirts off and pack it.”

Defensor Chief Operations Officer and owner David DiTullio passes out magazines of plastic BBs to those acting as security in a drill. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

DiTullio had a variety of tools before him on the floor, from tourniquets to tampons, which, he pointed out, are perfect for plugging bullet wounds and staving off bleeding until medics arrive.

He started quizzing the group: Say you have someone who was shot in arm, but is conscious and able to put pressure on the wound, and you also have someone who was shot in the chest. “Who do we need to address first?”

“Chest,” the security team chorused.

DiTullio nodded. “Because if we don’t, and we spend time on this one,” he said, meaning the person with the arm wound, “(then) this one” – the person shot in the chest – “is going to die.”

DiTullio spent 20 years in the military. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand, because most of his ring finger was blown off in an operation. He talks about grave realities in a manner that is starkly matter-of-fact.

“I can’t allow my knowledge of the person to dictate who I’m going to help first,” DiTullio said. “Because some people, unfortunately, just aren’t savable. The ones who are? We need to make sure we address the ones that have a limited time.”

This is what churches – or schools, or any organization hiring DiTullio and his colleagues – is paying Defensor to do: Imagine the worst scenario, prepare them to handle it, and – this is vital – reinforce everything they can do to prevent it from happening.

* * *

The November 2017 massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed and 20 injured, has drawn attention in recent months to church shootings. Researcher Carl Chinn reported that there were 118 violent deaths – which he terms as homicides, suicides and people killed in action – at U.S. faith-based organizations in 2017. Chinn, who has tracked such attacks since 1999, posted on his website that this is “the worst violence ever seen in America concerning faith-based organizations.”

He also points out that people who think, “It won’t happen here,” are likely correct. Though there are thousands of houses of worship in the United States and chances of attack are minuscule, it is a sensitive and harrowing topic. Multiple officials from faith-based organizations of different religions contacted by The News declined to comment in detail, or at all, for this story. That’s not because they are ignoring the topic. Many are working with Defensor or other training organizations, communicating with law enforcement, and instituting emergency protocols. At the same time, they are reluctant to draw attention to their institutions, or inadvertently divulge their plans.

Others, like Longwell, agreed to be interviewed because they want their congregations – and the community as a whole – to feel safe and invited. Addressing this publicly is also a chance to highlight what places of worship can do at their best: Help people who are wandering or lost find acceptance and a positive path.

“I want to love people,” Longwell said. “I want to help people. I want to guide people. I want to feed people. And a part of that is I protect them.”

That openness that is central to many places of worship — “Come as you are – we want to love you,” in Longwell’s words – is also part of their vulnerability. A distraught and disturbed father who is separated from his wife knows where she and the kids will be on a Sunday. Someone who is struggling with inner demons can walk into a house of worship to find peace, solace, comfort — or, in very rare cases, people who can become the target of raw anger.

Pastor Jon Longwell in the sanctuary at Grace Church of Tonawanda. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

This is why the church security teams that Defensor trains focus on behavior detection and intervention. When someone new comes into church, they will be greeted. If that visitor seems disturbed, distraught or even just distracted, the engagement also serves as a potential intervention — and one that, more times than not, will turn out well.

“You confront them in kindness,” said Dave Zannin, who leads the security ministry at Cornerstone Church on Grand Island. “You confront them in love. You speak to them tenderly. You ask open-ended questions. You get what we call their ‘trip story.’ Get them to tell you why they’re here.”

Zannin shared the example of a man in his mid-20s who came in late one morning for Cornerstone’s second service. Zannin recognized quickly that the young man didn’t seem comfortable. His head was shielded by the hood of his sweatshirt. His hands were in his pockets, and his eyes were on the floor.

Zannin greeted the man, who answered only with a short, “Mhmm.”

Zannin offered to show the visitor to his seat, but was rebuffed. The man sat in the back of the sanctuary. Zannin, standing nearby, watched him throughout the service. Afterward, the visitor walked down the stairs and started pacing, back and forth, in front of the doors.

Zannin approached again. “Hey, how are you?” he asked.

The man kept pacing.

“Is this your first time here?” Zannin said. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“No," he said, "it’s not my first time here.”

“OK, well, welcome back,” Zannin said.

He started pacing again, then said to Zannin, “This place changed its name.”

“Yes we did,” Zannin said, and offered an explanation: “The church leadership felt we needed a name that better reflected who we are. ‘Cornerstone’ was chosen because we believe Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith. We took the word ‘Baptist’ out of our name because we didn’t want to marginalize people, (making) people think, ‘Well, I’m not a Baptist, I can’t go in there.’ Because our motto here is ‘all people matter.’ We love everybody. We love you, too.”

The man’s face, until then tense, relaxed. “Do you think I might meet the pastor?” he said. “Do you think he has time to pray with me?”

“Come on up,” Zannin said.

The man spent an hour with the pastor, and then Zannin drove him home.

When Zannin himself got home, he thought about what had happened. “What did I just get in front of?” he wondered to himself.

Of course the truth is he doesn’t know. But it's a near certainty that this young man’s life was better off because Zannin noticed him, reached out, and helped.

* * *

The hands-on Defensor training, then, is to help security teams prepare for the least likely – but worst – of scenarios. DiTullio, Felano and Patrick Canna, Defensor’s president and also a police officer in Depew, create a variety of scenarios that force their trainees to make fast decisions, both individually and as a team.

Mistakes are plenty – and encouraged, because the more they are made in training, where the bullets are fake and the bad guys are actually volunteers wearing masks, the less likely they are to happen in reality.

In one scenario, an armed assailant pushed through a church basement and started ascending the stairs. A bystander ran into the lobby to alert security team members, who confronted him on the stairway – and shot him eight times. That, they were told, was a mistake – shooting overzealously when an assailant is already down can potentially lead to legal problems.

In another scenario, which was played out at multiple churches, an estranged husband with a gun in hand argued with his wife in the nursery as she clutched their baby. The ideal outcome: Take him down without pulling a trigger.

A particularly tricky challenge happened when Canna set up a scenario in which a gunman was hiding. It went like this: The church security team, along with several other people, were sitting in the sanctuary, as if a service was happening. Suddenly, they heard a gunshot, which seemed to come from the lobby. Two team members ran out, one about 15 feet behind the other, both with firearms brandished. The gunman was nowhere to be seen.

During this drill at Cornerstone Church on Grand Island, an active shooter played by Defensor President Pat Canna, enters into the back of the sanctuary and begins shooting. After he is shot by church security, the Erie County Sheriff deputies enter at which time everyone drops their guns and raises their hands so the police know they are not the shooters. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The first man into the lobby ran by a closed door and down the stairs. The second followed him. The third person into the lobby noticed a man on the ground, simulating bleeding. This was Steven U. Padin, a firearms instructor at the Erie County Law Enforcement Training Academy and a church security consultant who often works with Defensor. Padin, playing the role of an innocent, injured bystander, was pointing to the closed door. At the same time, another shot rang out.

It seemed to be coming from behind that door.

With the first two security members already downstairs and out of sight, the third member burst through the door. The gunman, who was crouched behind a round table just inside the doorway, rose to fire. The security team member shot him first.

The gunman fell to the floor, legs splayed.

Canna gathered the trainees as soon as the scenario ended. He has a policeman’s bark, and used it when he told them, “You guys did not work as a team at all. Everybody just got focused on the shots and went on their own path.”

The team members should have been talking to each other, he said, and not acting individually. The first two guys should not have gone off, he said, and to the man who took down the gunman, he noted, “He could have gotten a shot off on you. If you guys worked as a team, you wouldn’t have been put in that situation.”

Padin, back on his feet and no longer simulating a victim, added, “You still had time where you could have called for reinforcements. ‘Guys, guys, up here, up here!’ ”

It was a tough but necessary lesson.

“A lot of their survivability,” Canna said later, “is based on communication.”

* * *

Zannin, at Cornerstone, has a simple vision for the result this training should yield. “We want to stand here in 10, 20 years, and nothing has ever happened,” he said. “But to stand there and go, ‘How many things did we get in front of, just by doing the job right?’ ”

From the pulpit at Grace Church, Longwell still struggles with the thought – unlikely as it is of ever playing out – of having to hurt someone.

“I am conflicted,” he said. “Because I have devoted my life to saving people. Helping them ... I have made a commitment with my life. But here’s what wins at the end of the day for me: Because I love people, I will fight evil. Maybe that’s a harsh way of saying it.”

Or maybe it’s a true way of addressing a rare but harsh prospect: A shepherd protects.

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