Sheriff hopes to improve church safety

Jim Johnson

Mississippi has had things happen citizens thought they’d never see.

Twenty years ago someone would have rolled their eyes if someone said, “There’s a day coming when we’ll have armed guards in our schools and churches.”

Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson began his career in law enforcement with the Verona Police Department as a dispatcher nearly 40 years ago.

“My police chief, Lamar Kelly, went to the same church I did at First Baptist. I remember we were renovating the sanctuary so we were having church in the gym. I started to walk in there one morning and he stopped me,” Johnson said. “He said ‘son, that gun (which Johnson had strapped on) has no place in this church. You take it back out and lock it up in your car. Don’t you ever bring that gun in this church.’ He was my boss, and I think ... look how things have changed.”

Since 1999, 91 have lost their lives in church shootings.

Most recently, in December of 2019, two men were killed and another man was injured in a shooting at a church in Texas — the latest in a string of attacks at houses of worship in recent years.

The last one in Mississippi happened Aug. 11, 2019 in Ripley and one ended up dead.

“I support people protecting their property — whether it’s a home or a church. I mean our churches have to be safe,” Johnson said. “We do try to encourage churches to concentrate on a plan, how to react if there is an active shooter and how to get people to a safe place.”

The sheriff, who is a devout Christian, frequently is asked to speak to churches. He recalled a time when he asked a congregation of about 250, how many had a gun on them - 32 raised their hands.

“I remind them they’ve really got to think things through. You’re in a crowded place. Where does that bullet go if you miss the target and it goes through a wall?,” Johnson asked.

When the sheriff, and many officers go to their personal church they frequently go in their squad car. They know it’s a deterrent to just have that marked vehicle in the parking lot.

The most recent issue the sheriff is addressing is for congregations who don’t have a member of law enforcement who regularly attends.

“The state of Mississippi has a law that says private companies (churches) can hire off-duty officers to work security. They can wear their uniform and their sidearm, but right now if they’ve been hired they can’t take their marked law enforcement vehicle,” Johnson said. “What we’re asking, for church settings, is for a bill to be introduced that will amend that law to include that vehicle.”

Not only is the vehicle a deterrent, but it’s a safety buffer for the officer in case, they have to detain someone or give chase. The proposed ammendment is 100 percent supported by the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association. The sheriff hopes this will be addressed during the current legislative session.

“Our officers do take home their vehicles — some drive them to church, I do,” he said. “But if they are hired security they can’t take it. It’s crazy.”­

It’s a fact that even empty marked patrol cars make criminals think twice before committing a crime in that neighborhood.

The other area the sheriff wishes more training went into was the Mississippi concealed carry permit. The State of Mississippi will issue you a basic (non-enhanced) concealed carry permit without taking any training. However, an enhanced permit does require training to obtain and allows the gun owner to carry in several places where those with basic permits cannot and extends the reciprocity to additional states.

“The last thing in an officer’s mind is — hoping he gets to shoot someone. I’ve seen a total change happen to someone here. Their attitude, their outlook on life — it changes when they have to resort to that (shooting someone),” Johnson said. “If you have to shoot someone — you have to live with it. You can’t put that bullet back in the gun.”

The Lee County Sheriff's Department is located at 510 Commerce Street in Tupelo. Their number is (662) 841-9040.

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