How U.S. Jews can prevent the next Pittsburgh

Post-Pittsburgh, Jewish communities are talking to NY’s top Homeland Security commissioner, but will they change?

Security camera (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Security camera
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
New York State Homeland Security Commissioner Roger Parrino says many people who are debating, after the Pittsburgh attack, how the institutional Jewish community in the US needs to improve its security are missing the point.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post about his ongoing efforts to address security issues, he said that “the Jewish community is always ready to listen” politely to his advice, but that there is still a big question mark about whether “they are ready to change” in a real way.
While much of the public debate has been for or against armed guards and security cameras, Parrino says improving security needs to be more holistic.
Regarding security cameras, he rifled off a list of questions about their effectiveness.
“Cameras help with a conviction” after an attack, but “what do they do to stop an attack or save lives” during an attack, he asked?
Assuming that cameras cover a zone “starting a block away, in theory that helps push out [the security] perimeter. I am not arguing against them. But how much money is being spent? Who is watching them regularly? Does the person watching” in real time – if there is someone – “have decision-making and communications abilities? Can he tell other people to go to a checkpoint,” to block a suspicious person’s progress toward a location?
Parrino said that “with active shooters, the period of time needed to survive is about six to eight minutes in the US. What happens in those six to eight minutes? What do you do to shorten that time? Is there direct communications with law enforcement? Do they [police] know what time [the synagogue’s prayer] services are?”
Answering all of these questions in a way that promotes the primary goal of preventing a shooter from entering the premises of a synagogue or of shortening the amount of time the shooter has to target worshipers is the key, he stated.
He took a similar analytical approach to the debate over armed guards.
“It is up to the rabbi and his constituency, what they need for their security.... You cannot just rest on armed guards. You cannot just rest on metal detectors... which may not be necessary,” he said.
He asked about the quality of the armed guards and whether they will be placed in a spot that is noticeable or not noticeable.
On one hand, he said that noticeable security guards “could be a deterrent,” but on the other hand “noticeable guards could be vulnerable and may be where the attack starts.
“If I am going for a synagogue no matter what,” as in recent attacks in California and Florida where the attackers had preselected a specific target, often the shooter has staked out the scene and will take out the armed guard first.
Parrino said that one better approach could be a combination of an obvious armed guard to deter attackers, who might be undecided about where they are going to strike, along with a second level of a hidden armed security guard responsible for overwatch of the first level.
Moreover, he said “you get what you pay for. You need to look into” who you are hiring as armed security. “Is it someone with a military or law enforcement background, where they have good training and have done things like this? Or do you go to a contractor and take the first person they give you? I am not sure that helps,” he said.
Returning to his message of approaching security with a holistic strategy, he said, “It goes so much deeper than the question of armed guard or no armed guard. Everybody involved needs to look for a stranger whom they do not know... or a car that circles the block three times.”
Advocating “very simple things,” Parrino said that making sure to have “access to a cellphone in the shul,” even if – absent a security problem – this would “go against the religious beliefs,” could “go a long way toward a faster response” and save lives.
Comparing Israel to the US Jewish community, he noted that whereas some Orthodox Jewish synagogues in Israel have a variety of worshipers carrying either weapons or communications devices, there are many US Orthodox Jewish congregations without even a single cellphone.
“Israel is under a constant threat. You could say America is, too, but it is so spread out that the Jewish community does not think it will touch them – this is an unrealistic view,” he said.
“To me, being a non-Jew, you would think this [having a designated cellphone in synagogue] is easy to address, but” after years of experience with the Jewish community, he said “not so much.”
A “good percentage of attacks in America, around 25%, are from insiders,” he said. “This is not the case in the Jewish community. This means that getting an asset [cellphone] into a house of worship” is even more crucial.
The inability to call cuts off institutions from the police, the hospital and others, he stated.
This is not just important for having the ability to call police for help.
A cellphone or preplanning with police can also be key to telling police how best to approach the building to get to protecting the congregants faster or to get the drop on the attacker.
Other basic points that are not exciting things to spend money on, but which can save lives, are Jewish institutions limiting and better controlling their access points, having an alarm system, and making sure congregants know where to run and hide in the event that shooting breaks out.
Further, he said a full security evaluation of buildings and congregants should be performed as, until a full review, “you don’t even know what you don’t know.”
Next, the Post presented him with some out-of-the-box ideas.
In Europe, some Jewish communities have congregants on a rotation outside the synagogue who seem disconnected from the building, but are quietly keeping an eye on the surrounding area. The technique was developed in conjunction with advice from Israeli security services.
Parrino said he loves the idea, but was not excited about the Post revealing it (the technique was published by the Post in the past in the context of boosting confidence in European Jewish security).
Another radical idea, expanding beyond security cameras, which have a limited range and vantage point, is to use drone surveillance. He was less enthusiastic about this by itself.
He asked, “Who is watching or directing the drone? What do you do when it is raining or there is a 35-mph wind or an electric blackout?... It is not a bad idea, but none of the solutions are magic.... If you get permission to put up a drone, that’s great, but do you spend money on the guy monitoring the drone?
“What resources does he have to make calls? Can he lock down the shul or send two people to the corner to intercept? Or is it just a drone?” he asked.
EVER SINCE the Pittsburgh attack, Parrino has been in overdrive, meeting with Jewish leaders and even doing some site evaluations of specific synagogues and community centers.
For Parrino, the Pittsburgh attack “did not change anything” about how he perceived the threat to Jewish communities. “I always believed the threat is there.” But now he is trying to “get certain members of the Jewish community to realize they can act proactively, before” an attack occurs.
The commissioner also noted a new $10 million grant by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his department, announced on November 9, to protect New York’s nonpublic schools and cultural centers, including religious ones, against hate crimes.
That said, he reiterated that “money alone is not the answer” and that working with law enforcement and coordinating with police to swing by a synagogue at key times required no money.
Referring to specific meetings he has had with New York area Jewish communities, he complimented the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan on its high-level and 24-hour security, while acknowledging that many locations cannot afford that.
On November 10, he toured the Young Israel of Woodmere, and on November 11 he lectured at Temple Judea in Manhasset hosted by the Chabad of Rosalyn, with a large number of Chabad and other Jewish community leaders in attendance.
He said that he has worked closely, even before the Pittsburgh attack, with Conference of Presidents CEO Malcolm Hoenlein and Rabbi Michael Melnicke on the security of the Jewish communities of New York.
“It will take major discussions by security experts and by elders in a shul who have to decide what they are comfortable with. If there is no armed person, but they take care of all of the other items, it can still be a very secure facility. The mere presence of a weapon does not make it more secure,” he concluded.