By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
In the sanctuary of LifeSprings church, weeks after a gunman killed 26 worshippers at a rural church just two hours to the south, Liberty Hill Police Chief Maverick Campbell had a simple message for the group of community leaders gathered: “God doesn’t say we have to pray with our eyes closed.”
It was the first meeting for the “Community Critical Incident Task Force Committee,” a local committee that the police department intends will seek pro-active strategies to help prevent episodes of mass violence in the area.
The 25 attendees were mostly pastors or associated with a church, small business owners, and a few city officials and employees.
Campbell, who previously led a similarly focused community committee as a police chief in Kansas, emphasized throughout the meeting that it was a “rough draft” or informational session for what he plans to grow into a regular occurrence.
During a slideshow presentation outlining what the police department hopes to achieve with the group, Officer Royce Graeter described it as a partnership between law enforcement and “soft targets”— including businesses, public spaces, municipal buildings, and large-scale festivals or gatherings.
“If you think it can’t happen here, it can,” Graeter said. He said that while putting together the slideshow, he heard a call for an active shooter on a Cedar Park school campus.
The incident turned out to be two eighth grade students with an airsoft gun taking photos.
As Graeter said later, he would much rather “get the call and have to go over there and find out it was nothing,” than to hear later after “something horrible” that some saw warning signs and said nothing.
“If you see something, say something,” Campbell repeatedly emphasized.
Campbell and Graeter told attendees that in settings such as a church or business, if one person notices concerning behavior from an individual, that information should be shared with others in leadership roles. Additional “red flags” might have been observed by others.
Campbell said he wants to create a committee made up of vetted members who would be able to share information and coordinate between each other.
“If we don’t have these conversations, we’re going to continue to have these stories come out,” Campbell said.
Several of the attendees shared their own experiences with threatening individuals in public places and the measures they have taken.
Court Administrator Tracy Ventura, who runs the daily operations of Liberty Hill’s Municipal Court, said that recently she had a phone call with a defendant who was “extremely upset at an officer and at me and how things were being handled.”
The man ended the call, called back, and shouted over the phone that he would soon be at the court building.
“I made sure I was ready for dispatch,” she said, “But I probably should have called for police.”
Pastor David Joiner from LifeSprings Church said that some years ago a member of the congregation had to be escorted out, and was subsequently banned, after yelling in the middle of a service.
“There are some in the general population who might go, ‘oh a church would do that?’” he said. “Yes, we would. We’ve a right to worship.”
Pastor Corey Ross from the Williamson County Cowboy Church, which also hosts a large annual rodeo, said that after seeing what happened in Sutherland Springs, he now had a “place where he was protected.” He and several other ushers at the church have concealed handgun licenses, he said, “but we need training.”
“I don’t want crossfire,” he continued, “or to be shot by the guy next to me.”
Campbell agreed that training is essential for any licensed handgun carrier, as is communication in a congregation.
“You want to know who is armed and who is not armed,” Campbell said.
He added that the committee would not be a place where the police would offer that training.
Campbell at one point cautioned, “I don’t want this to be a concealed handgun license vigilante militia group that’s out to go after active shooters.”
He continually emphasized an intention that the group be preventative rather than reactive.
Going forward, Campbell said he hopes to build the meetings to be larger. More than those who live or work within city limits are invited.
“I know there are more than 25 locations in Liberty Hill,” he said, referring to the number of attendees.
The next meeting was tentatively planned for sometime in January, after quickly deciding that the holiday season would not be viable for most.
Campbell asked how many would be willing to host the next meeting at their location. A majority raised their hands.