Sheriff’s office, churches team for emergency notification

System would provide houses of worship with real-time updates on potential threats

The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office is looking to strengthen ties with local faith-based organizations after it recently received notice from the federal government about a man making threats against houses of worship.

While there was little to the alleged threat, law enforcement officials believe establishing further communications with religious leaders could help notify more people about threats as well as information about other emergency situations.

Earlier this week, members of the Central Putnam Ministerial Association and other county religious leaders gathered as the sheriff’s office unveiled an emergency notification system similar to one used at the county courthouse.

Churches would be able to receive real-time updates from the sheriff’s office via a ministry’s point person, who would provide their contact information to receive text and email alerts.

Using that system, law enforcement officials hope to be able to strengthen community ties by keeping local churches aware of threats in the area, spokeswoman Allison Waters-Merritt said. 

There are hundreds of ministries throughout the county, but only a little more than 30 were represented at the meeting, many of which had signed up for the system. The sheriff’s office is looking to expand that system countywide.

“We have a lot of little religious organizations in the area, groups so small they often have speakers instead of pastors,” Waters-Merritt said. “What we’re trying to do is get everyone together so we can have those contacts to relay information about threats or other notifications.”

Law enforcement agencies have long had strong relationships with local churches, Waters-Merritt said, which have included offering threat assessments to houses of worship following the shooting of black congregants during a prayer service in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

Religious leaders are also pivotal in providing rehabilitation programs for inmates at Putnam County Jail. Often when the sheriff’s office speaks with members of the Central Putnam Ministerial Association, it’s to inform them of opportunities to provide services aiming to lower recidivism.

But the recent threat against the faithful made the need to broaden that relationship more urgent. 

Local leaders have responded positively to the agency’s efforts. Sandra Gilyard, associate pastor at New Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in San Mateo, said she was relieved the sheriff’s office was able to follow up on threats against local churches.

Still, she said, an important question lingered: What if that hadn’t been the case?

“Our congregation is very small. God forbid something like that would have happened,” said Gilyard, who also serves as a member of the county school board. “So for them to be able to reach out to notify us of anything that could bring harm to the congregation is great.”

The church is looking to getting a risk assessment of its building later this year, she added. 

The notification system is not just for threats against churches, Waters-Merritt said. It also provides opportunities to coordinate with faith organizations during national disasters and other emergencies. 

Local ministries have also served as shelters for residents who need one, which the sheriff’s office hopes to better utilize in the future, Waters-Merritt said.

But when it comes to threats, the agency doesn’t want to overlook any potential vulnerability, and neither do church leaders.

“I believe the congregation deserves that from the pastor — to not only bring forth the word and take care of them spiritually but look out for them physically, as well,” Gilyard said.

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