By: Jimmy Watt
Public Information Officer
(Walhalla, SC)——————————-With issues that have arisen at churches across the United States in recent years, the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office wants to take a proactive stance to inform churches about proper church safety procedures and laws that can help to protect churches during their worship services, especially as it regards organized disruptions of those services.
While churches in Oconee County have not seen many of the problems that other churches around the country have dealt with, Sgt. Mike McGowan feels that preparation beforehand is the best way to deal with any future problems that may arise.
“We used to say that certain things that happened in other places can’t happen here,” says Sgt. McGowan, who provides information and meets with local area churches to coordinate church safety meetings. “However, society has changed and churches need to understand the importance of being prepared before an event could happen. We are not trying to create panic but we are partnering with our area churches to keep everyone safe so they can enjoy their worship experience.”
Sgt. McGowan has held several church safety meetings with Oconee County churches to make them aware of certain issues that may arise, from how to protect church property to preventing break-ins and thefts to answering questions regarding the rights of Concealed Weapon Permit holders to carry firearms in churches.
“When most people think of church safety, the first thing that comes to mind is regarding church shootings and how to prevent them,” continues Sgt. McGowan. “However, church safety is a wide ranging set of issues and when I conduct church safety meetings, I talk about church shootings, but I also discuss how to prevent someone from taking money from their church to how to best protect their property from being vandalized to what the law says about Concealed Weapon Permit holders. It is a wide range of topics that come up during every meeting.”
One issue that has arisen in other parts of the country has been disruptions in church services, including individuals coming into churches and disrupting the pastor as the sermon commences. Section 16-17-520 of the South Carolina Code of Laws is the law that covers disruptions in worship services, or entering such premises while intoxicated, or using profane language. The charge carries a monetary fine of up to $100 or imprisonment up to 1 year or both.
Sgt. McGowan recommends the following safety steps for churches to deal with disruptions in worship services of any kind:
1) Someone in a leadership or office holding position should ask them to refrain from their activity or ask them to leave if they fail to do so. If at all possible, refrain from physically placing hands on those individuals unless it is necessary to protect themselves or others from physical harm.
2) Regardless of circumstances, 911 should be called to request law enforcement assistance. The Sheriff’s Office will respond immediately or notify the appropriate city police department.
3) If possible, someone should document the incident by recording the incident using a smartphone.
4) If deemed necessary, it may be a good idea to having the auditorium or sanctuary cleared for the safety of others who are there.
5) If they do voluntarily leave, try to get a vehicle description or tag number. Contact law enforcement with that information.
6) When law enforcement arrives and those individuals are still there, have those individuals who are disrupting the service placed on trespass notice. The Sheriff’s Office will arrest anyone in violation of disturbing a worship service.
7) Assist law enforcement with thorough written statements and any video evidence.
8) If in the future these individuals return, immediately call 911.
Sgt. McGowan also recommends that churches consider forming church safety teams consisting of current and retired law enforcement, military and Concealed Weapons Permit holders.
If anyone church is interested in hosting a church safety meeting with Sgt. McGowan, please contact him at 864-638-2017.