The massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week that resulted in the deaths of nine church members has some questioning how such a horrific crime could take place in a house of God.
Since 1999, there have been more than 950 incidents of deadly force at faith-based organizations, with an estimated 142 incidents on Catholic Church property, according to Carl Chinn, who speaks to faith-based operators and law-enforcement groups about ministry security and who in 1999 began to compile data about criminal incidents at religious institutions from news outlets, law enforcement news releases and public court records.
This statistic could not be corroborated with Department of Justice homicide statistics because the incidents are measured differently. Many incidents take place in church parking lots, said Chinn, who is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and shares his data with church security professionals, pastors, law enforcement and others on his website (carlchinn.com).
Churches shouldn’t have to have security every time they meet for a Bible study, but the situation may require it, security experts say.
“We have to have that mindset that any time a group gets together in church somebody needs to be thinking in terms of protection,” said Jimmy Meeks, a Fort Worth, Texas, pastor and police officer who, along with Chinn and retired Army Lt. Col. David Grossman, leads Sheepdog Seminars to help U.S. church leaders create safe environments. Doing a thorough security analysis is a good way to find out how much your church is at risk, said Jim McGuffey, a Bluffton, South Carolina-based security consultant who advises churches on security.
The following is advice from experts that parishes can take to assess their safety and security risks in order to help church leaders develop a comprehensive plan for responding to crises, from power outages to armed attacks.
1. Consider the risks. It could happen in your church even though nothing may have happened up to this point. “Most churches don’t wake up until it happens to them and right in their area,” said Meeks, who added that God will protect churches, but he also asks them to take action. “It’s loving people enough to protect them.” The church building itself will not protect parishes from attack or emergencies, he said.
2. Bring together the stakeholders. Set up a meeting of clergy, staff and parishioners with law enforcement, military or first-responder experience. Start the conversation about security and safety, said Peter Johnson, founder of Minneapolis-based Archway Defense, which offers on-site training for churches. Often, parishioners trained to protect or provide emergency response want to offer their skills. Assess the current parish plan and whether the parish has the resources to update it, he said.
3. Build a team. Assign a committee to oversee security and safety functions, leveraging talent, experience and passion of members of the parish.
4. Conduct a vulnerability assessment. Those most familiar with the church, together with a security professional, should study the physical layout of the parish property and its operation for potential security and safety risks. Basic security checklists are available online to help with the study. A qualified professional or even a police officer can assess vulnerability, Johnson said. “We would want someone to come in with what they know and apply their practical and empirical knowledge so that we don’t have to stress about it.”
The assessment should include a physical layout analysis and an operational analysis. Examples of areas to study include lighting, demarcation between public and private space and natural entry flow control, Johnson said. Security will conduct a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) analysis. “That’s modifying the physical layout of your church to reduce the propensity for violence,” he said.
An operational analysis should study issues such as when church doors are open, the number of people coming in and out of the building, systems for handling large bulk cash and the ramifications for protecting parishioners without interrupting church functions, Johnson said. “How can we better utilize our resources to keep people safe?” he said.
5. Rank risks and prioritize probability of occurrence. Using the results of the vulnerability assessment, the security team should identify practically the risks and prioritize protection efforts — from vandalism to natural disasters to attacks, McGuffey said.
“You can’t let emotions get into the picture. If you’re 500 miles from [the site of an attack] you wouldn’t rank ‘active shooter’ highest.”
6. Create an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) to cover all emergency situations. The EAP is meant to be a guide for mitigating or responding to a crisis in a unified way, Johnson said, adding that it offers a more cohesive, wider view. “It’s a playbook for how an organization or a church will respond in an emergency situation, because the time to figure that out is not when somebody’s on the ground in cardiac arrest,” Johnson said.
McGuffey stressed the importance of creating a plan that includes identifiable threats or hazards while also reflecting a parish’s size and unique needs.
7. Go over the plan with law enforcement, fire and first responders. Sharing your plan could shorten the response time in an emergency, Johnson said. Let officials know “how you’re going to respond so they can better tailor their response to mimic yours,” he said.
Police departments usually will work with churches on this, Meeks said.
8. Inform the insurance provider. Bringing your EAP to the parish’s insurance company allows them to assess it for possible liability issues, Johnson said.
Even if your provider already has your EAP, they could give you a discount off your premium if you give them a more comprehensive plan, he said.
Insurance companies are a wealth of statistical data on loss prevention, McGuffey said.
9. Train parish leaders. Make sure clergy, staff and volunteers who are in a position to observe the congregation or act in a crisis are trained properly.
“It’s for everybody, because the more eyes you have that are aware, there’s peace of mind,” Johnson said, adding that many organizations already train for crises such as tornados and fires.
One aspect of the training is learning what behavior is outside the parish’s norm, he said. “We’re not training ‘Men in Black’ or Secret Service,” Johnson said. “What we’re doing is simply seeing the stuff that’s outside the norm.”
Because it takes time for law enforcement and first responders to arrive when there is a crisis, training can help parishioners save lives by mitigating or ending a crisis, he said.
Because many sexual assaults occur on church property, Meeks encouraged churches to offer defense training for women.
10. Pray and fast to stop violence. There are many examples throughout history of how prayer and fasting have aided in times of war or violence, Meeks said.
“We are not going to win this war on violence with just guns alone or learning self-defense,” he said.
“We need our Father’s help. He can take this violence right out of people’s hearts.”
Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.