PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – As the Pittsburgh community gathers at multiple events this weekend to remember the 11 innocent lives lost nearly a year ago at Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh Public Safety says there are security plans in place.
Officials say they recognize the significance and importance of upcoming events that will take place all over Pittsburgh from Oct. 25 through Oct. 27.
Some security will be very visible this weekend, but not all.
“We’ve hired off-duty officers to be at every event in a plainclothes capacity and in a uniform capacity,” said Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Zone 4 Cmdr. Dan Hermann.
There will also be marked and unmarked cars.
A year ago, a gunman killed 11 people at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life Synagogue.
Throughout the weekend, Pittsburgh will remember the 11 lives lost, the two survivors, the four police officers shot while rushing in to help and the countless people who have done the little things over the last year that have made a difference in the lives of people dealing with unspeakable tragedy.
While Pittsburgh will see a heavier police force this weekend, local synagogues have already seen an increase in security measures after the Tree of Life attack.
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Armed guards. Panic buttons. Mantraps. They’re all becoming routine at local synagogues and other Jewish facilities — schools, community centers, even assisted living communities. And the local Jewish community’s chief watchdog says there’s more vigilance than ever before when it comes to monitoring potential threats.
Earlier this month, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, you could not miss the men with guns protecting the men, women and children arriving at Pittsburgh synagogues to pray. There were armed guards outside the houses of worship — and inside, too.
Brad Orsini, the former FBI agent who now oversees security for the Pittsburgh Jewish community, says worshippers now understand the importance of that visible, armed presence as a deterrence.
“Our community’s changed,” says Orsini. “When I started this position, we had those conversations where people thought, ‘you know, we want undercover officers.’ We had to change their mindset.”
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The security at Orsini’s own workplace, The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, gives an idea of how local synagogues are being secured, post Tree of Life.
“We have one access point for anybody who walks in this building, only one,” says Orsini.
And at that one entrance, no one gets past a first set of doors without an armed guard’s okay. Then, you’re in what’s called a “mantrap” — with a second set of doors opened only after further review. They’ve thought of every worst case scenario.
“We’ve put bullet-resistant drywall on our whole perimeter,” says Orsini. “You can feel the weight of this door. It’s reinforced steel, and it is bullet-resistant. This is the Alamo right here.”
As an additional measure of what they call “target hardening,” windows at the Federation’s offices have an extra element of protection.
Says Orsini, “The difference with these windows is, we have a protective film on it. Many local Jewish facilities have done the same thing.”
Orsini says that coating would keep the window from shattering when hit with, say, a rock or a brick, or even a bullet.
Less visible is something employees at the Federation, and at local synagogues, now have immediate access to in the event of an emergency: Panic buttons to reach 911. Orsini says personnel — such as ushers and greeters at prayer services – can wear them on a lanyard.
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Orsini worked for the FBI for 28 years. He says the security measures in place at the Federation and, increasingly, at other local Jewish facilities, make him feel about as safe as he did in an FBI office. But to try to be even safer still, he strives to spread the word that those capable of acts of terror often telegraph their intentions. They may tell someone. They may talk about — or post about — a grievance.
In such a scenario, says Orsini, “Somebody knows that something’s not quite right. We have to tell our community about that. We have to talk about it. So if something is an anomaly with an individual they may know, they need to report it.”
Orsini also encourages the community to report any and all acts of anti-Semitism — such as a swastika painted on a Lawrenceville warehouse, discovered the day after the Tree of Life massacre. That’s vandalism — a crime. But he also wants to hear about flyers or other materials posted around town, spreading messages of hate, even if the messages enjoy the protection of freedom of speech.
“Our goal, hopefully, is that maybe our community will see somebody put this up. Maybe our community will be in a position to snap a picture of the individual, snap a license plate of the individual. They’re not breaking the law, and there is a difference between hate speech and hate crime. But we know hate speech can lead to a hate crime and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Orsini says.
“We’re gonna look at it, we’re gonna analyze it, we’re gonna asses it, we’re gonna try to figure out who’s sending it to us, we’re gonna report it to law enforcement, make sure they have it. We can’t live in a day and age where our community dismisses this as just anti-Semitism. That ship has sailed. We need to report everything.”
Every week, at least some local Jewish facilities are training or drilling for active shooter scenarios. They’re learning how to stop a victim’s bleeding and other first aid.
And Jewish leaders encourage other faiths to be vigilant as well, in light of what we’ve seen in Charleston and Christchurch, to name but two locations of other mass shootings targeting religious institutions. To that end, Orsini has offered security seminars at local churches and mosques.