After a shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego left one person dead and three others injured in April, Portland faith leaders started asking local law enforcement agencies what they could do to protect their own congregations.
Reverend Markel Hutchins fielded many of their calls. Hutchins is the leader of the One Congregation One Precinct (OneCOP) Initiative, an Atlanta-based organization that connects law enforcement with faith-based communities. OneCOP opened its Portland branch in January, which Hutchins oversees. While there haven’t been any recent instances or specific risks of gun violence at religious spaces in Portland, Hutchins said it became clear to him after the Poway shooting that a large-scale safety training for Portland houses of worship was needed.
“We live in an environment,” Hutchins said, “where those who intend to inflict harm often see large gatherings—including Sunday and Saturday services—as a vulnerable target that when attacked, can wreak havoc on a mass of people, and at the same time garner those attackers a great deal of media attention.”
That training, hosted by OneCOP, will take place this Sunday, June 30, and will be focused on protecting Portland's religious communities from shooting attacks.
The last couple years have seen an uptick in gun violence at houses of worship, both in the United States and abroad. At a press conference held Thursday, law enforcement officials repeatedly invoked recent mass shootings when explaining why this preventive training is necessary.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many acts of violence against faith communities across the country,” said Scott Asphaug, the assistant United States Attorney in Oregon. “The Portland Metro Area is a welcoming and diverse community, but it is not unlike Pittsburgh or Charleston or Oak Creek or Poway.”
The training will include participation from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), the sheriff departments for Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas Counties, the FBI, and the US Attorney’s Office.
Lt. Tina Jones, PPB’s spokesperson, said that while the bureau has provided small-scale one-on-one training sessions for individual houses of worship before, this is the first major training of its kind to happen in Portland—and one of the first in the country.
But while it’s clear that Portland’s faith communities need and want safety training, it remains to be seen whether religious minorities—many of which have historically found themselves disproportionately targeted by law enforcement—will turn out for a training that includes both local police officers and the FBI.
In February, the Portland City Council voted to leave the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a group of regional law enforcement agencies that assist the FBI with identifying and surveilling potential terrorist activity. A major factor in that decision: Testimony from many people of color and religious minorities—including members of Portland’s Muslim community—who said they felt unsafe around law enforcement, and in particular the FBI.
Renn Cannon, a special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland Division, told reporters that the FBI’s role in Sunday’s training will be to provide safety tips for responding to an active shooter, and to help faith leaders identify potential “pathways to violence” at their houses of worship.
Hutchins stressed at the press conference that Sunday’s training, which will be held at Congregation Neveh Shalom from 3 to 6 pm, is intended for leaders from “every house of worship.” He said he’s reached out to “the Muslim, the Jewish, the Hindu, the Buddhist, as well as the Christian communities,” and he’s hopeful that even communities who might otherwise be reluctant to interact with the police will make an exception for a safety training.
“There’s a lot of things that some of our houses of worship might disagree with Portland, or the Portland Police Bureau, the FBI, or some other law enforcement agency,” Hutchins added. “But we all agree on this subject matter, that people who come to worship deserve to be protected and feel safe in that space.”