FILE - In this April 29, 2019 file photo, A sign asks for time to grieve at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif. The gunman who attacked the synagogue last week fired his semi-automatic rifle at Passover worshippers after walking through the front entrance that synagogue leaders identified last year as needing improved security. The synagogue applied for a federal grant to better protect that area. The money, $150,000, was approved in September but only arrived in late March. "Obviously we did not have a chance to start using the funds yet," Rabbi Scimcha Backman told The Associated Press.(AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

Synagogue didn't get to fund security upgrades before attack

May 02, 2019 - 8:40 pm

POWAY, Calif. (AP) — Leaders at a Southern California synagogue knew they needed to increase security around their front door a year before a gunman walked through it and opened fire.

The Chabad of Poway synagogue sought a $150,000 federal grant to install gates and more secure doors, but it took nearly a year for the application to be approved and the money to be distributed. It was awarded in late March.

"Obviously, we did not have a chance to start using the funds yet," rabbi Simcha Backman told The Associated Press.

Backman, who oversees security grants for the 207 Chabad institutions across California, wouldn't give details on the planned enhancements or speculate whether they might have changed the outcome of Saturday's attack.

The gunman killed a woman and wounded an 8-year-old girl, her uncle and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was leading the service on the last day of Passover, a major Jewish holiday. Goldstein, who lost a finger, joined President Donald Trump on Thursday for the National Day of Prayer .

Republican state Sen. Brian Jones, whose district includes the synagogue near San Diego, said he wants to find a way to shorten the time it takes for security grant money to get to organizations.

"Can we remove some bureaucratic steps here to help these organizations get these improvements done quicker?" he said.

The Poway synagogue doesn't have security guards. But California's Chabad organization began asking members who were trained law enforcement professionals to carry their weapons at services after a gunman massacred 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October.

Goldstein also applied for a concealed carry permit, and the congregation received training from the city of Poway on responding to an active shooter.

Houses of worship, like all institutions open to the public, face a balancing act in providing security while maintaining a welcoming atmosphere, said Jesus Villahermosa, a former law enforcement officer in Washington state who teaches classes nationwide on deterring and reacting to active shooters.

"All the mechanical security in the world isn't going to change that anyone in America can walk into any place in America and open fire," he said. "It's difficult because I don't think there is a perfect solution."

Even installing metal detectors merely makes those gathered there the potential initial target, he said.

Villahermosa said synagogue leaders were wise to ask officers to come armed, but layers of security would be best, including professional armed guards at entrances, embedded in the congregation and at the front of the worship area.

On Saturday, an off-duty Border Patrol agent who attends the synagogue fired at the gunman as he fled, hitting his vehicle. The 19-year-old suspect, John T. Earnest, has pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder charges.

The synagogue was built two decades ago with security features including video surveillance, but leaders started beefing up those measures in 2010. They received and spent money from a $75,000 grant earmarked for a security assessment, 16 cameras, fencing and lighting, according to records reviewed by AP. One camera showed the gunman fumbling with his rifle before fleeing.

The synagogue applied for another grant in May 2018 to upgrade those cameras and add other enhancements.

While the synagogue got approval in September, a workshop on the required documents wasn't held until late October and the synagogue submitted its first documents in early February, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services, which administers the program for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The state then requested additional information before awarding the money on March 22.

New FEMA rules allow the grants to be spent on security guards, and state officials said recipients can seek a modification to existing grants to use the money that way. Backman said the synagogue is considering it and will find money to hire guards even if the government does not fund them.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is backing legislation that would change a similar state grant program to allow money for guards, citing the increase in hate crimes against Jews and other religious and racial minorities. He said institutions should decide whether those guards are armed.

In response to the increase in mass shootings, states from Florida to Texas are considering measures that would allow people to be armed in places of worship and study.

Newsom announced Monday that he was budgeting $15 million to increase security for religious institutions and other vulnerable nonprofits. Last year, the program got $500,000.

Democratic Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, vice chairman of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, said lawmakers will have more control over how quickly the state money gets to institutions at risk of hate-motivated violence.

"Obviously, there's every reason in the world to get those funds out as quickly as possible," he said.

Jewish-affiliated organizations in California received 79% of the 264 nonprofit security grants awarded under the federal and state programs since 2012. The remaining 21% went to institutions serving other faiths, hospitals, Planned Parenthood chapters, domestic violence shelters, museums and a university.

The goal is to help any at-risk institution, though Jewish organizations could be more aware of the program, Gabriel said.

"There's a real sense of vulnerability right now in the Jewish community," he said.

Government help with security makes sense because millions of Americans attend places of worship, Backman said.

"I understand the concern for separation of church and state, but this is not about the government supporting one religious institution over another," the rabbi said. "It's about the government protecting its citizens."

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Thompson reported from Sacramento. Associated Press writer Adam Beam in Sacramento contributed to this story.

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