nra 22 kapelsohnAn Interview with Emanuel Kapelsohn

by Gila Hayes

Last month we talked with attorney, expert witness and Network Advisory Board member Emanuel Kapelsohn about the many concerns arising when churches select and equip volunteer security teams. We’re addressing this topic in depth due to the many questions from Network members and prospective members alike who ask if Armed Citizens’ Network would pay for their legal defense if, while serving as security volunteers at church, they use force in defense of the congregation. Our answer? Although the opportunity has not yet arisen, we’d count it a privilege to assist members with legal expenses after they defend themselves and worshipers at their church. As with any use of force, there are serious ramifications to consider before undertaking armed defense. What responsibilities fall to volunteers serving a safety mission?

Kapelsohn contributed a tremendous amount of time and shared experience from both his personal volunteerism and his work as an attorney. In last month’s introduction to this subject, we ran out of time before exploring why documented training is critical, whether safety volunteers join the rest of the congregation in the pews during services or stand guard at assigned posts, and perhaps most important, creation of a use of force policy. If you missed the first installment of this interview, browse to for the first part of this discussion then return to our conversation with Kapelsohn and learn more in this edition of our online journal or stream video of our interview at if you prefer video format.

eJournal: You’ve explained many of the basics of setting up an armed church security team, including preliminary selection of team members. Once approved, what lies ahead of a new volunteer on your church’s Safe Team?

Kapelsohn: We’ve got this person who’s been approved for team membership. They’ve got their childcare clearances and concealed carry permit or if it’s a state that doesn’t require a permit, we figure out how to put them through a criminal background check. We require that our team members start with a 17-hour long program that includes classroom training on state law, firearm safety, mental preparation, alertness, and mental conditioning for this task. It includes range training on everything from drawing and firing single and multiple shots to engaging multiple targets, reloading, clearing stoppages, firing in situations where you have to miss innocents and other things. It includes firing a qualification similar to what a police department might fire. 

Class starts in the classroom on a Friday night. Saturday morning we’re in the classroom and on the range in the afternoon. Sunday morning is services, so we don’t have anything then, but Sunday afternoon we’re back on the range. That’s how we get in our good, solid 17 hours of training. People also get a written 3-ring binder of materials; some is sent to them ahead of time to study. It’s a good and rigorous program.

You have to pass a written test in that class. If you don’t pass it, you can’t be on the team. Maybe more study is needed for the written test. You’ve got to qualify with your weapon. If you don’t fire a qualifying score, maybe remedial training is needed, and you can’t be on the team yet.

After being accepted for the team, they get the first aid, pepper gel, and unarmed defensive tactics training. We have several training sessions throughout the year in addition to the in-service firearms qualifications. We bring in lecturers to speak on various topics and many other kinds of training including man-on-man Simunitions® or Airsoft® with role players. We’ve done video simulator training both at our nearby police academy and I’ve brought in a mobile video simulator from another police academy. We put 42 people through that video simulator over three days. This is state-of-the-art training of a kind that police officers would go through. The goal is to make people on the team competent, confident, alert to things they should watch for and to develop the right mindset.

manny play 800eJournal: When a team member has completed their initial training, do they work alongside a mentor?

Kapelsohn: The first few times that they serve a security function, they may work up in the communications center. Keep in mind, we’ve got our Safe Team and medical team on one radio channel, and parking lot attendants and building maintenance people on different channels. A parking lot attendant may see something that causes them some concern and they may radio in. If the communication center or the operations pastor thinks the Safe Team needs to respond, they’ll put it out on our channel. When a team member is new to the job, they may spend a couple of sessions in the communication center where they see the security video camera coverage and hear the radio traffic. The first time or two that you’re there, you’ll be working with someone else, sort of like a field training officer, very, very similar to a police department.

eJournal: How does the new volunteer get a good understanding of your policies so he or she does not inadvertently mess up?

Kapelsohn: We have a written use of force and firearms policy. I suggest that any house of worship should have that if they have an armed congregant team. I mentioned before that the policy governs things like what weapons and ammunition you can carry. The policy also specifies qualification intervals. What happens if someone fails to qualify? What rules do we follow? When do we use deadly force? It may not be the same as just saying, “Whenever state law permits.” There are some uses of force that may be permitted by state law that we don’t want to permit in our congregation; we may want to be more restrictive. We make it clear in the policy that there are things like protection of mere property – and I’m using the word “mere” – or apprehension of criminal suspects that typically aren’t our job. That’s for the police.

If someone is out in the parking lot vandalizing a car, the police need to be called. Maybe someone from the Safe Team goes out there and yells, “Hey, what are you doing? Get out of there! The police are on the way.” Maybe we act as a deterrent, maybe we get a good description of that person, but our people won’t try to effect a citizen’s arrest of someone committing criminal mischief. Similarly, it’s not our job to catch someone who commits a crime and is running away. Our policy makes it clear that we may need to detain that person if it’s necessary for the safety of the congregation. In other words, someone comes in and shoots or stabs someone in the hallway outside the service and is now running down the hall with the weapon still in their hands, they’re not just a fleeing criminal. They’re someone who’s a current, active deadly threat to others. That’s the reason we’d apprehend them; not because we want to see them brought to justice. Our job is to make sure they don’t hurt someone else.

The policy covers that. Our policy is a little bit over 30 pages long. It’s quite comprehensive and it covers the things you carry when you’re on duty – your name badge, your radio, your pepper gel, your loaded weapon and at least one spare magazine or one speed loader. Your holster has to be an approved holster because we want to make sure that it’s safe and that your gun isn’t going to fall out. We’ve never had a problem of that sort, but the policy is important. It’s guidance for the team members; it’s liability protection for the team members and for the congregation. It’s the game plan by which people operate, so that’s important.

If you have an attorney who represents your congregation, legal counsel certainly needs to look at the policy. Your legal counsel may or may not have a clue about armed security or armed confrontations or firearms, so you’ll have to figure that out when the time comes. Clearly, the written policy is something that your legal counsel should pass on and agree to. In our case, the insurance carriers wanted to know that we had a policy, and they want to see our policy. That’s important.

eJournal: Once the policy is written and approved, we come to the thorny issue of policy enforcement.

Kapelsohn: Any time we have team members present at the facility, there’s someone in charge of them. I mentioned that they have radios and that someone in the communications center is monitoring and managing that radio traffic. They may get a call that says something like, “Command, I have a child who twisted his ankle in the west hallway. Can we have somebody from the medical team respond?” or sometimes a person faints during a service – loses consciousness – or people have diabetic attacks, or someone has chest pains and needs an ambulance.

If you have a radio call that says someone just twisted their ankle in the west hallway, you don’t want all seven of your armed security people and both of your medical people to converge on the west hallway. Who’s protecting the rest of the congregants and the rest of the activities? You’ve got to have standard operating procedures; you have to have someone in charge.

You may get a call, “Hey, I have a person of interest who I don’t recognize as being a regular attendee…” Of course, that’s not unusual. We have many visitors on any Sunday, but maybe this person is unsteady on their feet; they’re staggering a little bit. “I wonder whether they’re intoxicated. Here’s their description. I’m going to keep an eye on this person.” That’s something the person who’s in charge of the Safe Team needs to know about. They may need to go up to this individual and say, “Hey, are you feeling OK?” to make a judgment about whether they are intoxicated or not.

After all, we’re a house of worship. We want to be welcoming to people. We don’t necessarily want to evict people because they’re having a personal problem. For the most part, those decisions are left to the clergy at Good Church. There may be someone sitting in the middle of a service that has 800 other people in it and this person is speaking out loud, doing something that you or I might consider disruptive. At Good Church, until they do something that appears to be a threat to people’s physical safety, if they’re just disrupting the service, no matter how disruptive it is, the Safe Team won’t eject that person from the church. They may get closer to that person, but ultimately the pastor makes the decision.

The pastor may actually stop the service and step down from the lectern and go up to that person and say, “Are you having a problem today? Is there something we can do to help you?” The pastor is the one who ultimately makes the decision whether that person is going to be allowed to remain or whether that person is asked to leave or to come away to a quiet place to be counseled by another member of the clergy.

eJournal: If a Safe Team member is seriously worried by a visitor’s actions, does he or she leave their assigned post to shadow the possible risk?

Kapelsohn: It depends on the post. For instance, we have daycare for the youngest children. That’s behind a locked door. There are children in that area ranging from infants to three or four years old with teachers and people to care for the infants while the parents are in the service. It’s a very good system. The parents have to register for it and when they check in each day, they get a 2-part pressure-stick label. They slap one piece of the label on their kid’s back that’s got the identifying number and information. The parent keeps the other half. When the parent comes to pick up their child at the end of the service, they have to have the matching half, so Aunt Sally can’t show up and say, “I’m taking the child out,” and neither can the estranged spouse. It has to be the person who’s in the system as the one who’s allowed to pick up that child. Well, that’s behind locked doors and we have one of our Safe Team members posted right outside of the children’s area. That person will not leave that area. If there’s something that’s going on short of some incredibly unusual situation, the member who’s at that children’s post will not leave. That’s their spot.

Other people may be circulating through the facility or sitting in the service, and they’ll tell the communication center, “For this service, I’ll be sitting in the right rear of the main sanctuary.” That’s someone who’s free to move if they need to, but if they do, they’ll typically call and say, “Command, I’ve got a person of interest here. This is the situation: they’re now moving down the hallway and I’m following.”

The communication center will immediately pick that up on the video cameras and might say, “I see it,” and sometimes they’ll say, “I see it. It’s OK. I know that person.” A couple of weeks ago we had two congregants in the main service who stood throughout the whole service. One was far up in the front, close to the lectern or podium and one was in the back. One we knew, but it was a concern, so it came across the radio, “The man who’s standing up in the left rear of the service has a back problem. He can’t sit down; it’s OK, don’t worry about him. We know him.” We didn’t know the one who was standing up front and so one or more Safe Team members sat in that part of the sanctuary so they could keep a close eye on him in case it turned out to be something.

There’s a supervisor in charge for every event. That’s your team leader; your watch commander to take a term from the police. That’s the person who’s in charge. Maybe there’s someone out in the parking lot and it kind of looks like they’re living out of their car. They’ve been parked there all night. I’d like to go up and speak to this person, so I ask, “Would you come with me so that more than one person is going out?” You don’t want your whole team going out there. Number one, it’s more likely to incite high tension and the other reason is that the team is needed elsewhere. You may want more than just one of your security team to be a witness of what is said. Those decisions are typically left to the watch commander or the team leader in charge.

An obvious exception is an active killer, someone who comes in with a weapon and then you respond immediately. You respond immediately; you don’t get permission to respond to something that’s life threatening. Thankfully, we have not had that situation, but it has occurred elsewhere.

eJournal: The element of Safe Team formation and supervision that I’m having the hardest time wrapping my head around is how it scales. Your Good Church situation is the ideal, but how does a congregation of 50 worshipers in a little town scale down to enjoy the same protections and responsibilities? I’m not even sure how a church with 500 members on the books of which 300 show up every week assures a level of oversight like the communication center. Your thoughts?

Kapelsohn: It’s an excellent question. It’s got to be addressed on an instance-by-instance basis. For example, at a congregation that I was affiliated with before Good Church that had a fraction of the people coming to a service on the weekend, we would try to have at least two people there. Two people is a magnitude of more than twice as good as one person. Two people can back each other up. One can communicate, while the other addresses a problem. One can serve as a contact to a potential threat, while the other is a cover officer. You know, two is much better than twice as good as one. Our goal there was to always have at least two.

At Good Church we try to have at least five from the armed team and at least one from the medical team. That may turn at any given time into seven armed people and two from the medical team, but five and one is the minimum for which our operations director strives. If he doesn’t have at least five who said they’re coming to the 8 o’clock service this Sunday, he’ll start texting or phoning people and saying, “I’ve only got three people coming at 8 o’clock. Can you come in and fill it? I know you signed up with the 9:30 service, but we’ve got plenty at 9:30. Could you come for the 8 o’clock instead?”

Some places, it may be one armed person present, which is certainly a lot better than none. Some places it may be two present which is more than twice as good as one.

Then you may have other events. For instance, we have an annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Women in the congregation bake in excess of 10,000 cookies. We have a huge tent full of cookies of every description and coffee, tea, lemonade, hot apple cider and hot cocoa. This is not just for our congregation; it’s open to the community. There’s a beautiful outdoor Christmas tree that’s strung with lights and there are choirs that sing and at the appropriate time, the Christmas tree is illuminated. For kids, there’s a bounce house, a climbing wall, other kinds of games and a horse-drawn wagon gives a hayride. There’s singing and dancing and other activities going on inside where it’s warmer in case it’s cold out that evening. There are thousands of people there.

If we have a lot of people present for something that’s likely to draw a big crowd, like Christmas or Easter services where the place is more packed than it usually is, we’ll have a lot more than five of our team members present and a lot more than one medical team member, as well.

eJournal: You bring up a good point about the variety of activities at which an attack is possible. Many churches have parochial schools because they like to nurture their children’s faith. Does the Safe Team shoulder any responsibility to make sure that those students can attend class safely?

Kapelsohn: Good Church doesn’t have a church school, but it does have daycare for very young children. There are one or more regular employees of the church present during the week who are trained and state licensed. There are other churches in our area and all over the country that run church schools – we have one not far from us that goes K through 12. A volunteer armed congregant team probably will not suffice for that because most volunteers have jobs on the weekdays unless they are retired.

Church schools are going to need to think about having someone whose regular job it is to be there Monday through Friday when school is in session and when activities are in progress. That may be some staff members who are trained or it may be some people who have other functions like a teacher or an administrator. It may be people who are there just to be security officers, like school resource officers. We have some very stringent statutes in PA which unfortunately limit what church schools and parochial schools can do to provide adequate security.

Good Church also has evening activities on Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday nights. We try to have a Safe Team member present each of those nights with radio communication with the receptionist at the front door and with maintenance people who are on duty. Because it’s a multi-story facility, the radio allows a teacher on the third floor, for instance, to call you on the first floor and say, “We’ve got a problem here.”

eJournal: On a different topic, I’d like to explore the responsibility of an armed man or woman who simply is a worshiper. Perhaps they don’t have the physical ability or time to volunteer on the organized Safe Team, but they attend services discreetly armed in the same way that they go about their daily lives. If a deadly force attack threatens them or their children, they will take action. Should they inform the security supervisor or clergy? We would not want to mistake a well-intentioned armed citizen for an attacker’s accomplice, but at the same time, many armed citizens wisely keep the fact they’re armed extremely private. We don’t talk about it, and I think that’s best most of the time. Inside the church security environment, do armed parishioners need to report themselves to be armed?

Kapelsohn: That’s a wonderful question and, of course, it’s founded in your experience with all kinds of people who carry guns for all kinds of reasons. I love it when I’m speaking to a congregation’s board of directors or the board of trustees or the clergy and one of them says to me, “No, I don’t think we should have an armed congregant security team because I don’t want anyone carrying a gun in the church or in the synagogue.” I say to them, “You have a lot of people who are carrying guns. You just don’t know who they are!” Sometimes they’re shocked, but that’s the truth.

There are people who are carrying guns who have concealed carry permits; there are people who are carrying guns that never had a concealed carry permit – you know, Mrs. McGillicuddy who’s got a little revolver in her purse and she’s carried it for 50 years ever since her husband gave it to her. Some of those people are trained and safe; some of them are untrained and unsafe. A lot of people carry guns.

In the past, as a member of small congregations, at a point where I’ve developed a rapport and little bit of a relationship, so they knew who I was, I’ve gone to the pastor or the minister and said, “I just want you to know, this is who I am, this is what I do and I’m always carrying a gun. If there’s a problem here, you should know that I’m armed.” In each of those cases, they’ve said, “Oh, good. I’m glad to know that. Please keep carrying your gun to church or to the synagogue.”

A bigger problem is something like Good Church where we’ve got five or six or seven armed Safe Team members. What would happen if there were ever an armed attack – an active killer situation? We’ve got Safe Team members who would likely be drawing their guns and we might have congregants who are drawing their guns, too. We might not recognize all those congregants. They may be visitors, there for the first time or someone who’s been there more than once but we just don’t recognize them or we’re behind them so we can’t see their face, but we see their hand out, holding a gun. That’s a potential problem! The Safe Team carries Don’t Shoot Me security sashes so after the situation has gone on for a few seconds we would hope that our members deploy their sashes so it’s obvious that they are members of the security team, but what about all the other people?

Of course, different congregations take different approaches. Some post a sign that says, “No Firearms Allowed,” the so-called “Gun Free Zone.” I’m not in favor of that because there are no gun free zones. It becomes an announcement. They’re free fire zones for active killers. Some congregations post signs that say, “These premises are protected by armed security. Try to hurt us at your own risk.” That establishes an atmosphere that I’m not sure I’d want to be in.

At Good Church we do this: once a year, we have an evacuation drill for the children. The adults don’t evacuate during the service, but they’re told, “Fifteen minutes into the service, you will hear an alarm go off and the children in daycare, children’s activities and Sunday school classes will all be evacuated in an orderly fashion from the building by their teachers.” It’s like a fire drill in the school that you went to. We time it and we have Safe Team members outside in the assembly areas to which the classes are brought. We check out the parking lot ahead of time to make sure they’re all safe.

The evacuation drill allows the pastor to say something else to the congregation. The pastor says, “By the way,” and I’m paraphrasing, “Many of you know this already but in case you don’t, we’d like to let you know we have a security team that is very carefully selected and very highly trained. They are trained to respond to any kinds of problems we might have here, including violent, armed problems. If any of you happen to be carrying guns and something happens and you feel that you need to draw your gun or use your gun to protect yourself or your loved ones sitting next to you, by all means do what you have to do, but don’t go to involve yourself in the problem. If the problem is across the room or down the hall, don’t go to involve yourself in that. We have people who are trained to do that and by involving yourself you may create more of a problem.” You get the idea. People are told that there are people here prepared to deal with this. It’s not their job.

If, as a congregant, you think you need to draw your gun because the guy with the machete is right in front of you and your children, then by all means, do what you have to do, but don’t go across the room or down the hall to try to solve the problem. That’s our Safe Team’s responsibility. That’s the way that we’ve dealt with it. The Good Church program has been in place now for about 12 years. It’s got quite a good history and has dealt with many kinds of problems; thanks to God, not an active killer event, but many kinds of problems, including ones where people have needed ambulances or where the medical team has treated them or where the state police have been called. It’s been an excellent, excellent program.

eJournal: I feel fortunate to have been able to learn from their good example. It can be really difficult for people who know there’s a risk to life but don’t know how to best stop it, hopefully before blood is shed.

Kapelsohn: In addition to this interview and the podcast version of it at which should serve as a good resource, the large insurance companies that I mentioned, Church Mutual and Brotherhood Mutual, both have written materials that I believe are available having to do with security at houses of worship and dealing with potential problems of the kinds we’ve been discussing. They also have written policies, training programs, et cetera. I don’t know if they’re available only to people that insure with them, or to the public at large. If you go on the Internet today, you will find many training programs offered for house of worship security teams. Our state, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is actually offering programs several times a year on the Internet. I think it’s our state attorney general’s office that sponsors these programs.

There are other church security people, and they discuss various issues. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is a wonderful speaker who lectures all over the country on this subject. If you go on the Internet and you look up things like “sheepdog” or “sheepdog security,” some of these organizations have newsletters that they’ll send to you every month or more often that are free. There are many, many kinds of resources available. There are publications of the federal government on house of worship security that you can get free for the asking. You don’t have to be alone. Don’t feel like you have to invent the wheel all by yourself.

eJournal: I’m glad you bring up the various sources of education and mentoring for church safety teams. To me, the subtle lesson is that while guns and armed responses are the most serious element, we err if we ignore the huge array of other concerns. You’re really not looking out for your fellow worshipers very well if you ignore emergency medical needs and if you fail to ask questions like, “Are you doing OK today?” Those actions demonstrate the “heart” side of caring for your fellow worshipers. By mentioning those other resources, you’re inviting us to expand our knowledge and reminding us that using a gun in defense of worshipers is a minuscule, tiny part of the bigger need.

Kapelsohn: Absolutely! Years ago, I was a director of security in charge of an 11 man – actually 10 men and one woman – executive protection team for one of the wealthiest women in the world. When we were teaching things like the Heimlich Maneuver, I can remember saying to my people, “It’s much more likely that you’re going to have to use this to keep our principal from choking to death on a bite of steak in a restaurant than you’re going to have to use your gun to shoot a terrorist or a kidnapper.” It’s so true! Our medical team is used much more than the Safe Team is and when the Safe Team is used, it’s often to assist someone who’s fallen down or to help someone who’s having a problem of some sort or reunite a child with their parents, not because of a violent attack. You have to be realistic. If you have people on your security team who are only there because they intend to have gun fights with terrorists, you probably got the wrong person on your team.

eJournal: That’s sobering. We’ve covered a lot of ground. What do you want our members to take away from our time together?

Kapelsohn: Different kinds of programs may be appropriate for different sizes and types of houses of worship, but organization, supervision and policy, proper selection of people, and proper training of people are necessary and ongoing processes. All of these things are important. Your goal of making a safer place for everyone to come worship in is a wonderful goal. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of thought, but it’s not beyond anybody’s ability. With the right intentions and a little thought and a little energy you can achieve a tremendous, tremendous boost in safety.

eJournal: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable time and your extensive experience with keeping houses of worship safe. I have particularly appreciated the way you gave us high-angle overviews, especially your insights into the potential legal issues that can arise if we don’t take security team functions seriously. Thank you for your generosity!


Readers can learn more about Emanuel Kapelsohn at and our advisory board profile. Few are as well qualified to teach use of force as Kapelsohn, whose experience involves 39 years as an expert witness in federal and state courts all across the country, often in high profile law enforcement cases including State of Minnesota v. Yanez, State of Arizona v. Brailsford, Estate of Angel Lopez v. City of San Diego, LeGrier v. City of Chicago, State of Minnesota v. Noor, and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Roselle. He was also a key witness in the trial of Miller v. Rob Bonta, Attorney General of the State of California in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

His résumé also includes 27 years as an armed, sworn, reserve deputy sheriff and his career as an attorney, starting in 1978, with a few years away as an executive protection team leader, and being a firearms instructor, a pursuit he has enjoyed for about 45 years.

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