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Utah faith leaders, police gather to discuss safety at places of worship

Rabbi Avremi Zippel gives an opening prayer during a symposium titled “Protecting Faith Based Communities from Targeted Violence” at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.
Rabbi Avremi Zippel gives an opening prayer during a symposium titled “Protecting Faith Based Communities from Targeted Violence” at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As the number of threats and attacks on places of worship seem to increase across the world, Utah’s commissioner of public safety said Wednesday he hopes a “proactive approach” will help prevent such incidents in Utah.

Jess Anderson joined Utah faith leaders and fellow law enforcement officials Wednesday for a unique symposium to discuss safety in the state’s places of worship.

The event provided a great opportunity “to come together on the same page to ensure we are doing everything we can to ensure the safety or our religious freedoms and liberties to worship in these places of worship that are safe and protected from some of these evil outside influences that we see,” said Anderson, the Utah Department of Public Safety commissioner.

Anderson noted the attack in a San Diego synagogue in August that left one dead and three wounded, including an 8-year-old girl, and attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in July that killed dozens.

While Utah has not experienced any similar “senseless acts of violence based on ideology,” Anderson said the state wants to take a “proactive approach” in thwarting potential threats.

“Even though we haven’t had those incidents here in Utah, we don’t want them either,” he said.

The commissioner said he wants religious leaders to know that there are tools and resources available to them. And if worshippers see something, say something. Simply having a person at the door of church greeting everyone who enters can also act as a deterrent, he said.

Faith leaders are there to minister people, Anderson said. They are not experts on public safety.

“That’s not their role. It’s not what they’ve had to worry about before. And so when we come to them and say, ‘What would you do in the event of — and you can fill in the blank. They don’t know. Or perhaps it’s a matter of changing policy within an internal church organization.

“Maybe it’s changing structure and infrastructure, maybe putting in barriers or blockades as a way to protect people. That’s the areas they haven’t really thought of or know where to turn,” Anderson said.

A congregation should be able to go to church without the fear of having to constantly look over their shoulders, he said.

The Utah Department of Public Safety hosted the event, “Protecting Faith Based Communities from Targeted Violence,” on the campus of the University of Utah. About 165 members of public safety department, Homeland Security, local law enforcement and faith leaders from institutions such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and the Presbyterian Church met.

Some of the topics covered Wednesday include understanding radicalization and targeted violence, identifying threats to places of worship, a law enforcement, and faith leaders panel discussion and creating a safe environment for your congregation.

Pamela Atkinson, a longtime community activist and a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City, said she was appreciative of Wednesday’s symposium.

“My feeling is we’ve left faith leaders out of many discussions of very important issues,” she said.

At her church, Atkinson said it’s her job to greet people at the door. But she said part of that role is to look for people who enter who aren’t part of the regular congregation.

“There are people that come in that my suspicions start going up. And part of my role is to observe people and observe their behavior, and if they’re mentally ill, see if I can help them in any way,” she said. “We just want to be prepared.”

Atkinson said her concerns, sadly, have been heightened over the past few years.

“I think we’re all much more suspicious. And that’s a sad thing to say. We will greet people at Sunday worship. We’re glad to have them there. But we want to know that they are safe for us to interact with,” she said.