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HAMMOND — If you see something, say something.

That was one of the messages local, state and federal public safety officials had Friday for members of Region faith-based organizations at the Protecting Places of Worship Forum in Hammond.

Among those in attendance was Janet Keck, assistant senior elder at the recently vandalized Faith United Church of Christ in Hammond.

Keck thanked Hammond police, who quickly took two men into custody after a custodian discovered tens of thousands of dollars in damage May 29 at the church in the 3000 block of 175th Street. She also thanked the community for its support. 

Though police have said the vandalism at Faith United was "a very juvenile crime of opportunity," not a hate crime, Keck said it still left the congregation feeling violated.

"Nothing was taken," she said. "But to damage everything — overturning the organ and the altar."

The congregation is starting to get back to normal, she said. A new organ arrived and was played for services Sunday.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Danny Youmara said "respect for human life is going to the other side of the pendulum," and worshipers of all faiths must take precautions.

"If you see something, say something," he said.

Youmara helped investigate after mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016.

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"We're one community now," he said. "We have to help each other out."

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Spencer Brooks offered an overview of federal hate crime laws and showed examples of hate speech, asking the audience if the letters, statements and graffiti amounted to a "true threat" that could lead to prosecution. 

The words "die Jews" are a true threat, but "kill the gay" is not covered because the Fair Housing Act doesn't recognize sexual orientation as a bias, he said.

When an audience member asked why, Brooks said that was a good question for the Region's congressmen.

"It illustrates the frustration here that some things are not as simple as they seem," he said. 

U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch said religious freedom has been a core American principle since the country's founding. 

"Hate crimes are violent crimes, and reducing violent crimes is the Department of Justice's top priority," he said. 

In the past two years, the department has created a new hate crimes website and rolled out an initiative to facilitate outreach to places of worship, he said.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Indiana Department of Homeland Security urged churchgoers to create an emergency plan and said they stand ready to assist.

Hammond police Lt. Steve Kellogg offered tips on how to respond to an active shooter: "Run, hide, fight." His department also stands ready to assist churches and businesses in the community. For information, email skellogg@hammondpolice.com.

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