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Volunteers On Firing Line

By Mark Hrywna - January 1, 2008

A pistol-packing volunteer was credited with limiting the carnage at a Colorado church after a lone gunman already had shot and killed several people.

While most nonprofit organizations don’t arm volunteers, it’s also not entirely unheard of, and many deal with security issues of all kinds. Following last month’s shooting at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., some in the sector stressed that armed security is not a trend, while also emphasizing a bold line of demarcation between volunteer and firearm.

Brady Boyd, senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, said extra precautions were taken after two people were killed at a Young With a Mission (YWAM) Center. Boyd was in his office, as he usually is Sunday mornings, when his head of security alerted him of the shooting at the center outside Denver, 80 miles north and some eight hours earlier. It was then that he decided to call in extra security.

The gunman killed two and injured two others at the church just after 1 p.m. that day. Jeanne Assam, the armed security volunteer who took him down before he fatally shot himself, was purposely in the church’s rotunda because of the earlier YWAM shooting.

“We had a detailed evacuation plan in place given all kinds of scenarios, and had a large group of people that knew what to do. We had places on our campus that were designated as holding areas,” Boyd said during a press conference the day after the Dec. 9 shootings.

Boyd estimated the church’s security team is 15 to 20 people, and the only ones who are armed are those who are licensed to carry weapons, which is about half. “We follow the law very carefully and we follow strict guidelines, because there is obviously a lot of legality involved,” said Boyd, who declined requests for one-on-one interviews.

“Clearly volunteers are used in security-type situations a lot,” said Susan J. Ellis, president of Energize Inc., a Philadelphia-based consulting firm specializing in volunteering and a contributing editor to The NonProfit Times on volunteer issues. “Any time you have a mass demonstration — any civil disobedience — security is an entire area of special event planning.”

In most cases, Ellis said, it’s not meant to be armed security necessarily, but people clearly designated and done in some way with the local police department. “They’re given some kind of training as to what areas to look at, they’re told not to get into trouble themselves.”

Ellis said there are situations in which volunteers are recruited, with a requirement ranging from a gun license to law enforcement or military experience. “They’re not common,” she said. “It’s whoever’s the head of that team of security volunteers is almost always involved with the police…has somebody they can call. It’s a partnership between the volunteers and law enforcement.”

Curtis Sliwa, founder and CEO of the Alliance of Guardian Angels, said the volunteers who join his group first must go through an orientation and background check. A nonprofit organization of unarmed crime watchers, the New York City-based Guardian Angels have nearly 5,000 members in 11 countries and 102 cities.

If they qualify, potential Angels then are required to complete 128 hours of training to graduate the program. Training involved four areas: basic self-defense and conditioning; CPR/first aid; law, and Angels patrol and radio communications techniques.

The most important aspect of training, Sliwa said, is learning the law, and knowing what you can and cannot do, so as to not violate people’s rights in the process. Angels do not carry weapons but do make citizen’s arrests. After thousands of arrests over the years, he stressed, the organization has never been sued. “A lot of that is due to the extensive training,” Sliwa said, adding that training continues after the initial three-month program.

“Obviously, we don’t want to be perceived as vigilantes, or being excessive. Society entrusts citizens, as long as they don’t think they will be overbearing, as long as you’re not crossing that line of excessive force or violating civil rights,” Sliwa said.

“Citizens have to be empowered and the people you have to empower most are people in those situations. People have to have some degree of training of what to do and not to do rather than be paralyzed with fear, helpless, and incapable of doing anything.”

Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation (NAF) in Washington, D.C., deals with security issues every day.

“Relationships with law enforcement and law enforcement’s response are particularly critical to a decrease in extreme forms of violence,” said Saporta. “It’s important that clinics themselves are taking appropriate precautions so they make them less of a target and more difficult to attack.”

NAF has been keeping statistics of violent incidents and threats at its 400 member facilities for 30 years. “It helps us look at trends in violence,” Saporta said, “and be able to alert and work with clinics on appropriate security protocols and measures, as well as with law enforcement so they can help us prevent crimes and help us capture the perpetrators of violence and bring them to justice.”

NAF works with member clinics daily to ensure they have security protocols in place and know how to respond to threats of violence and actual violent incidents. “At the same time, we work with law enforcement because we’ve found that when they in fact enforce the laws that are available, we see a decrease in extreme forms of violence,” Saporta said.

NAF uses paid professional security at its meetings and conferences. Some clinics have paid security while others sometimes use clinic escorts, who are not security but volunteers who help women navigate “the gauntlet of protestors and threats and harassment so they can safely enter clinics,” Saporta said.

Long before the anthrax mail scares during late 2001, NAF had publications and protocols to help their member facilities to deal with things like suspicious mail or even butyric acid attacks, Saporta said. Today, NAF often is asked by other nonprofits and women’s organizations to do security training and review security and help develop protocols for dealing with mail threats and other kinds of threats. NPT

NPT staff writer Marla E. Nobles contributed to this report.

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