Congregation Shearith Israel in Virginia Highland last Sunday hosted an overflow crowd that crossed racial and religious lines to discuss how Atlanta’s houses of worship can deal with the possibility of an attack on their congregants.
The large crowd was a sign of the current mood of concern that reaches into the very heart of the faith-based community. In fact, traffic along University Drive that runs past Shearith Israel was temporarily snarled by the large number of people trying to attend the event.
Those who turned out included some of Georgia’s most important officials, including the head of the FBI in Atlanta and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the head of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.
Special Agent Clifford Goodwin, head of the community liaison program for the Atlanta FBI office, noted that civil rights violations, like the attack on the synagogue, are among the top priorities of the federal law enforcement agency.
“Hate crimes,” Goodwin pointed out, “go to the very heart of who we are as a country. Because if there is anything more egregious than being a victim of violent crime, it is being a victim simply because of who you are.”
Most synagogues in the Atlanta area have long established plans to deal with security, and many hire armed guards. The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta maintains the Secure Community Network (SCN) Alert System, which continuously monitors security situations and links our Jewish community organizations. The Federation employs a retired Secret Service agent with 25 year’s experience as director of community-wide security.
Nonetheless, law enforcement officials at Sunday’s meeting made a special appeal to the community for individuals to act quickly to report any threats or suspicious activity directly to those trained to deal with it.
The head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Vernon Keenan pointed out that, so far this year, his agency has dealt with 192 threats of violence to educational institutions that has made it possible to disrupt many potential attacks. They want to be effective in a similar way with churches and synagogues.
“We have a 24/5 watch unit with trained agents to get the information to where it can be properly handled. It will be acted upon,” Keenan emphasized.
“This is the first line of defense. We have seen success in school violence incidents and we want to see those same sorts of successes in houses of worship so that the GBI and the FBI don’t have to deploy their resources after the fact.”
Although churches and synagogues are statistically less likely to encounter violence than many other institutions and gathering places, the key to safety, everywhere, according to the law enforcement officials at the event, is to remain vigilant.
To make it easier, particularly for those who are frequent cell phone users, Georgia has developed a free app this year called “See Something, Send Something,” which facilitates the reporting of threats and other such incidents.
Sunday’s seminar was hastily arranged by Shearith Israel and the local OneCOP program that seeks to strengthen cooperation between law enforcement and faith-based communities.
Participants requested that ongoing dialogue continue after the event between law enforcement and the churches and synagogues.
As Goodwin put it, “This is really an important time for us to start conversations; each one of us needs to start to think of how we are going to react in a time of crisis.
For more information on hate crimes in America, visit the Anti-Defamation League at www.adl.org.