Keeping TC Jewish Institutions Safe Post-Poway

While the Jewish community continues to reel from the shooting at the Chabad of Poway last Saturday – and even Tree of Life in Pittsburgh six months ago, the quiet work to make the Twin Cities Jewish community safer continues.

In early October, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas hired Dan Plekkenpol, formerly the deputy chief of the Plymouth Police Department, to be the first full-time director of community security. Three weeks after starting, the Tree of Life shooting took place.

What’s changed in the six months since that is our community has become even more cognizant of those type of threats.

“Sometimes when you are at an institution, plans fall to the wayside because other things happen,” Plekkenpol said. “When Pittsburgh happened, it was a true catalyst to help organizations put security at the forefront. In essence, while it was a terrible, heinous event, it assisted me to touch base with the community about security.”

While Plekkenpol’s position at JCRC is a new one, the work of addressing security matters in the community has been at the core of the agency’s work for the past two decades.

“The hiring of Dan illustrates the need to have his experience and expertise,” said Anthony Sussman, director of communications and community security. “He has 30 years of experience in law enforcement. Recent events have allowed Dan to better understand the threat facing the Jewish community in the United States.”

In his six months at JCRC, Plekkenpol has been doing a number of pieces of training within the community when it comes to looking out for suspicious people or vehicles.

“We’ve done a lot of table-top exercises in which we create a scenario for the organization,” he said. “Everyone has been as far from cookie-cutter as you can be. All are different in where they are at and how they want to have security.

Plekkenpol said there is a balancing act that comes for synagogues between wanting to be warm and welcoming, but also have security. He has been encouraging organizations to let police – and the JCRC – know if they see something suspicious.

“They may think a suspicious car is no big deal, but if they call us up, maybe four other places have had that car (out front),” he said. “The call isn’t bothering the police. We need to use that as a tool in the toolbox.”

Sussman said that since 2007, the JCRC has assisted Jewish organizations in securing state and federal funds through the Non-Profit Security Grant Program. Plekkenpol has led more than 30 security assessments to see what organizations are doing well and what can be done to increase security.

The grants, he said, can give assistance for visible security and hiring guards or off-duty police officers.

“Increased patrol has always worked as a tool in law enforcement,” Plekkenpol said. “If you think about Pittsburgh or Poway, the lone-wolf person does their homework. If they see law enforcement there, it’s a place they won’t go to. The organizations and law enforcement we work with, have been very progressive and cognizant of threats. They take it upon themselves to go and take an extra patrol.”

Plekkenpol said he’s had an increase in calls and questions since Saturday.

“People are still working feverishly on the fallout from Poway, and we will have that for weeks to come,” he said. “After the response, there’s a recovery phase which takes a long time.”

With Plekkenpol’s emergency management background, he’s been working with institutions on an emergency response template so they know how to plan for all incidents, not just the high-risk, low-frequency events like an active shooter, but the lower-risk, high-frequency events as well.

“What happens if they are damaged by natural or manmade disasters?” he said. “This goes back to changing their way of thinking. It’s important to teach the low-hanging fruit, and think about things like when to change batteries in flashlights, or know who checks [automated external defibrillator] batteries. We want to work with the community to make them more self-sufficient and self-reliant.

“It’s great to be needed, but I’d rather train the community to be self-sufficient.”