Photo and story by Amber Cetinel / Contributing Writer
Religious leaders in Murfreesboro gathered at MTSU’s Tucker Theater Tuesday evening to discuss safety measures for their places of worship with representatives from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
The “Protecting Places of Worship Security Forum” aimed to address faith-based leaders’ concerns about targeted hate crimes and other criminal acts against their organizations.
Community leaders organized the forum in response to a burglary and vandalism incident in September last year at Murfreesboro’s Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church, whose members are predominantly black. The vandals damaged church property by “spraying a fire extinguisher in the church” and writing racist graffiti, according to Richard Sibert, a pastor at the Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church.
“We came together in one meeting and decided this would be a good way to make the community aware that these things happen, and we need to go ahead and do something about it,” Sibert said.
This incident is not Murfreesboro’s first brush with religiously targeted hate crimes. In 2017, two men vandalized the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro by writing “F— Allah” graffiti on the building’s walls and leaving a pig’s head and bacon near the mosque’s entrance. That’s only a handful of numerous documented hate crimes against the center.
Representatives from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies emphasized the need for continuous coordination between religious organizations and law enforcement to improve safety measures in places of worship.
“We want the public to know that, law enforcement as a whole, we work together. It’s not one agency, it’s everyone working together so that if there’s an incident, we can mitigate that incident right away,” said Michael Knight, the public information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Nashville Field Division.
In 2017, hate crimes due to religious bias increased to 10 percent, compared to 9.4 percent in 2016, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s 2017 Hate Crime annual report. The report states that in order for a criminal act to be considered a hate crime, the investigation must conclude that the criminal act was “committed on the basis of differences in personal characteristics, such as appearance, language, nationality or religion.”
In addition to coordinating directly with local law enforcement officials, to include the Murfreesboro Police Department and the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, faith-based community leaders can also improve their organization’s safety through a simple measure: installing high-resolution video cameras in and around their places of worship.
“I think the cameras are a real deterrent, and a lot of times, if potential burglars know there’s a camera there, they won’t try that place,” said Lisa Marchesoni, the public information officer for the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office.
Though Murfreesboro has experienced its fair share of hate crimes in recent years, community leaders like Sibert hope to inspire a different path for offenders.
“One thing I want people to know is that everybody deserves a second chance … I want (people) to know that, hey, this kind of stuff can get you into some serious trouble. It can ultimately affect you for the rest of your life,” Sibert said.
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