Monday, August 17, 2015

Plan to protect local churches ‘well on its way,” Wharton says

U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III, the chief law enforcement officer for the Western
District of Tennessee, said the Charleston shooting is a reminder that churches should be
proactive and ever vigilant. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
       The church massacre in Charleston, S.C. and widespread concern about African-American churches burning is driving concern about the need to find ways to protect local churches.
Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn, Edward Stanton III, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, and state Rep. G.A. Hardaway (District 93) discussed the concern along with a group of clergymen at the headquarters of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association on Tuesday.
“No one can legislate morality and decency,” said Memphis mayor AC Wharton Jr., noting the difference between church and state. “That falls into the hands of the churches. We might not be able to dictate morality and fairness, but…we’re going to make sure that they (churches) are able to do so in peace and safety.”
Shortly after the fatal shootings of nine members of historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, Wharton gave Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong the responsibility of assembling a security task force to avert a “Charleston-type incident” in Memphis.
The plan – “which I am not going to divulge” – is well on its way, said Wharton. He did not say when the plan would be fully implemented or what it entails. He did say, however, that there would be some form of training.
Asked what could churches do if a suspicious stranger is in their midst, Wharton said, “Churches are taught to be open and not judge by outward appearances. I was always taught that you should watch as well as pray. That means you have to be on the lookout somehow.”
Law enforcement, said Wharton, needs to know everything that’s going on in the event there is a threat to churches or if there is a potential for violence…“so that MPD can be in the best position to provide the needed protection.”
Recent fires at six African-American churches in five states – South Carolina, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee – have drawn federal scrutiny.
Justice Department spokesperson Melanie Newman in a July 2 statement noted ongoing investigations by the ATF, FBI, the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys’ offices.
“Preliminary investigations indicate that two of the fires were started by natural causes and one was the result of an electrical fire,” Newman said in her statement. “All of the fires remain under active investigation and federal law enforcement continues to work to determine the cause of all of the fires. To date the investigations have not revealed any potential links between the fires.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee and the Justice Department announced recently that a Knoxville federal grand jury has charged 63-year-old Robert Doggart with one-count of soliciting another person to torch a mosque in Islamberg, a hamlet in Hancock, N.Y.
If convicted, Doggart could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
At the meeting Tuesday in Memphis, Stanton said he was not aware of any church fires within his 22-county jurisdiction. “We’ve been very fortunate here,” he said.
Stanton said he immersed himself in conversation with the clergymen to inform them and the religious community that if there were a threat to them or their churches, they would know who to call and what to do.
The Charleston shooting is a reminder that churches should be proactive and ever vigilant in order to maintain their safety, he said. “We want to ensure that those places of worship and everywhere around the country remain safe.”
Gwyn said he wanted to give the clergymen some tidbit of information on how the churches and church leaders can protect themselves, which “raises awareness with all of the people here…all over the state…and all over the country.”
“You’re gonna see a more heightened level of security at churches,” he said. “There’s gonna have to be a cultural change. We’ve always had the mindset that the church is where you welcome everybody. We’re gonna have to know our congregation a little better.”
Hardaway convened the meeting with law enforcement and the clergy after speaking with Wharton and Gwyn. “We’ve got to live with the threat, but prepare ourselves,” he said.
“We have to be aware of what happened there and prepare ourselves so that it won’t happen here…. When you talk about a majority black city with a majority black leadership…you got to be conscious that Charleston wasn’t expecting it either.”
       The Rev. C.S. Greer, pastor of Hopewell Baptist Church and vice president of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association, agreed with Hardaway that what happened in Charleston and in other areas 

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