Packed inside a Maplewood banquet hall last week, more than 200 police officers and faith leaders bowed their heads as a Catholic bishop and Muslim imam led them in prayer.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension invited them there to discuss how worshipers statewide can carry out acts of faith without fear of facing gunfire or explosives.
It hasn’t been an easy fear to escape lately — the latest headline being last month’s machete attack on a Hanukkah celebration in New York. Minnesotans needn’t look far for a reason to take caution while observing their faiths in public after the 2017 bombing of Bloomington’s Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center.
Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, now in his second year in the job, envisioned last week’s “engagement meeting” as a jumping-off point to connect law enforcement and faith leaders, to better scan for threats against places of worship and to train on how to safeguard such buildings, which often also house schools and day-care centers.
“We are not better when we don’t know each other, we are better when we are all in this together,” Harrington said.
Faith leaders were encouraged to establish liaisons with local law enforcement, and Harrington urged them to not feel like a call to police is an inconvenience to the agency. Federal authorities also joined private security instructors for talks around partnering with law enforcement and a community awareness briefing.
The forum was the clearest sign yet that law enforcement agencies in Minnesota are increasingly seeing the security of faith institutions as a growing responsibility. At one point during the meeting, Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts likened the response to the massive security upgrades at schools that followed the 1999 Columbine shootings.
“In our First Amendment is the basis for the separation of church and state, and so sometimes we don’t think about government as being involved … ,” said Drew Evans, superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. “But in that same amendment is our freedom to worship and freedom of religion, and we need to be doing everything we can as a government to ensure that the freedom of religion exists so that people have the ability to worship freely and … in peace.”
Harrington plans to lobby the Legislature again for more security grant funding to bolster defenses at places of worship. Some, like Dar Al-Farooq, have had to get creative to protect buildings that can be occupied for as long as 16 hours on a given day. A private company helped install a system there that can fire chemical irritants at would-be shooters. Bloomington police and Homeland Security have also helped perform threat assessments and staged an active-shooter drill last Ramadan.
The connection to law enforcement “helped us more to recover from our big loss of sense of security that we went through,” said Mohamed Omar, the center’s executive director.