As the synagogue shooter trial proceeds, Pittsburgh has some extra help ensuring its Jewish community remains safe.
The Secure Community Network has set up a temporary command post down the hall from Shawn Brokos, security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
A rotating team has been scouring the dark web for activities or phrases that might pose a threat to the community. Of particular interest are phrases that refer to the trial, Tree of Life, or other terms that might relate to Pittsburgh.
And while the online research could be done at SCN’s headquarters in Chicago, Brokos said having a team situated in the city provides an immediacy to the work.
“It’s in real time,” she said. “What I like is Erin [Fagan, community security associate] and I can pick something up, come down here and say, ‘What have you seen on this?’ or ‘What do you know about that?’”
The Federation/SCN hybrid team also tracks the witnesses testifying during the trial and checks online to see if anyone is chatting about them.
SCN was founded in 2004 under the auspices of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. It is the central group dedicated exclusively to the safety and security of the American Jewish community, working with 146 federations, 50 organizations and more than 300 independent communities, according to its website.
SCN National Security Director Brad Orsini — who formerly served as the director of community security for Pittsburgh’s Federation — noted that the organization monitors between 1,000 and 1,200 people of interest every day.
“We’re happy to share that number,” he said, “because I think it’s important. These are real numbers. These are real people. This is actionable intelligence that we’re monitoring and feeding back out to security directors and law enforcement, just to make sure everybody’s connected.”
That information is also shared with the National Threat Operations Center at the FBI. The SCN is the only nonprofit organization in the United States tied directly to the NTOC, according to Orsini.
The SCN, Orsini said, is not the arbiter of whether something is an actionable threat. Instead, the goal is to get as much intelligence to law enforcement as possible.
An intelligence analyst working in the Pittsburgh command post (whose name is being held for security reasons) said that often includes specific threats—time, dates and/or locations. Analysts also look to see if they can find a larger narrative online.
“A lot of times, what you’re doing are these deep social media dives to get a full picture,” the analyst said.
The number of threats that are mitigated, Orsini said, is significant.
“It’s an alarming number of threats that end up with someone in handcuffs,” he said — approximately one person every other week.
That’s just from the work of SCN and the various community security directors, Orsini said. He stressed the importance of community members reporting suspicious activity to the Federation and local law enforcement.
Michael Masters is SCN’s national director and CEO. He started in the position in December 2017. Several months earlier, SCN launched an initiative providing grant funding to local federations for training, tools and resources to protect those inside Jewish community centers, synagogues, schools, senior centers, summer camps and other centers of Jewish life.
As part of that initiative, a security training session was held at Tree of Life Congregation shortly before the Oct. 27, 2018, attack. Congregant Steve Weiss told radio station WESA that it was because of the training provided by Orsini that he knew not to hide where he could be found. Weiss instead ran from the building and survived the attack.
Orsini also convinced Tree of Life’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers to carry a cellphone on Shabbat. As a result, he was one of the first people to call 911 when the attack began.
Masters said that during the second week of October 2017, he and Orsini talked about creating a team of security professionals that could be deployed for support if an incident occurred in a Jewish community.
“I don’t think either he or I would have envisioned the community we were going to support was his own,” Masters said.
By Oct. 27, 2018, Masters said, Pittsburgh, under the guidance of the Federation, already had started to think more deeply about security: More than 45 facilities had undergone security assessments, and more than 6,000 people were trained in more than 130 training sessions. Additionally, tabletop exercises were completed with various law enforcement agencies.
“I think this community made substantive investments in preparedness,” he said.
The result: The Pittsburgh Jewish community was able to reopen day schools, synagogues and community centers the Monday following the attack.
“That wasn’t an accident,” Masters said. “It happened because of the work, time and dedication that went in.”
The theme “Pittsburgh Strong” has been a guiding force since the massacre, and SCN has worked to instill the lessons learned following Oct. 27, 2018, Masters said.
“The commitment of members of this community to develop out our command center, to develop out our technology platform, ‘Project Rain,’ that we use on a national level, was all born out of the commitment of people in this community and their drive to act,” he said. “So, an incredible amount of tragedy but a validation of how we need to think about security. I’d like to think in doing that we can honor the memories of those taken from us.”
Thanks to the work SCN is doing, Masters said, in the past six months approximately 227,000 “risk events” were evaluated, with more than 4,400 directly referencing proximity to or touching a Jewish institution — including more than 607 referrals to federal law enforcement.
Weeding through the most vocal threats to find the most violent requires a professional perspective, Masters stressed.
Or, to put it another way: “Howlers, often howl, they don’t hunt,” he said. “And hunters often hunt, they don’t howl.”
SCN’s goal, Masters said, is to allow the community to sleep soundly and to let those who wreak violence and hate know that the organization is out there and that it won’t give in.
Brokos said she is happy for SCN’s support, which gives her the time to concentrate on issues unrelated to the trial.
Of course, nothing helps more than community involvement, she said.
“Anybody who remotely looks like they may not belong, even if it’s something very innocent, let us know,” she said.
Orsini agreed, saying law enforcement has a mantra: “Bad guys practice at being bad.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.