By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
For the past two months, worshipers at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C., have been met by a new kind of greeter: an armed, off-duty police officer in a marked police vehicle. He is there to deter violence and respond if a gunman should ever open fire.
Call it a sign of the times. St. Columba’s took the step as calls for security grew louder after an October massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue left 11 dead, according to senior warden Stephen Smith. But attempts to enhance safety have come with tradeoffs as well as benefits.
“There were people that were advocating for the larger [police] presence, as they felt that would make them safer,” Smith said at a church security workshop when the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes met in Boston in February.
“But now with the increased presence, there are some folks who feel like I just don’t want to be reminded about the violence in the world. I want to come to church in the right mindset. And do we really create peace with more symbols of violence?”
St. Columba’s is one of dozens of Episcopal churches taking new steps to prevent the types of attacks on soft targets that have brought tragedy to faith communities from Sutherland Springs, Texas, to Christchurch, New Zealand.
At CEEP, in a roomful of people from about 70 parishes, a show of hands indicated that many churches are taking steps to enhance safety and create a security plan.
Safeguards gaining traction include locking all entrances when the processional hymn begins, installing hidden cameras and banning backpacks from sanctuaries. Action steps tend to vary according to location, perceived risks, and how much money is available for bolstering security.
In Houston, Christ Church Cathedral spends $97,000 annually on security, according to chief operating officer David Simpson, who helped lead the CEEP session on security. He said most of that budget pays six off-duty police officers, who create a uniformed presence every Sunday morning, both around campus and at every entrance.
“Having security — an armed, off-duty police person near your entrance — will probably be the best deterrent you can have, short of having a machine gun nest in front of your church, which is not very inviting,” Simpson said. “Anybody that’s got a gun and is wanting to come into a church will see that. They’ll either confront that person or they will walk away and find someplace else.”
When asked how Christ Church balances security with hospitality, Simpson said parishioners tend to welcome the police presence. They have come to know individual officers across a decade, he said, and trust has grown with longevity.
Other congregations are taking subtler steps. St. Bartholomew’s Church in Baltimore last year formed a security team of ushers, retired police, military members, and medical professionals. At Sunday services, team members practice situational awareness by scanning for people who “don’t look like they’re there for the service,” said junior warden Corinne Bowmaker.
“It’s to keep an eye on them,” Bowmaker said. “It’s quiet. Right now they’re not wearing a security badge or anything like that.”
Team members who lack training in behavior analysis or de-escalation methods will receive it, she said. The church also plans to offer training in how to administer tourniquets.
Trinity Church in Portsmouth, Va., has opted for a low-budget approach. Last December, the church asked the local police to provide a free security consultation. One week after police toured the facility, the church received a 12-page report with suggestions for where to tighten defenses.
“You don’t have to spend a whole lot of money,” said Linda Torres, parish administrator at Trinity. “They showed us all kinds of things that we’d never thought of. Some of our doors have hinges on the outside.”
Whether congregations should allow worshipers to pack heat remains a matter of spirited debate. Bowmaker said her team attended a training event at which one Baltimore police officer was adamant that worshipers should be armed if they have concealed-carry permits.
But others, including both presenters at CEEP, insisted it’s better to leave weaponry in the hands of those trained and experienced in handling crises that involve violent threats.
“I’ve talked with a number of police officers about it,” said Jeanie Garrett, an Austin-based consultant who worked on security at St. David’s Church in Austin. “They don’t want to comment officially on it that they don’t want people to be carrying concealed, but it just muddies the water, I think, when they come in and instead of looking for one armed person there’s maybe 10 of them.”
Presenters at CEEP acknowledged that more security is not always easy for parishioners to accept. For instance, when St. David’s closed a familiar hallway in order to manage crowd flow through fewer entry points, some longtime parishioners were upset about what felt like an intrusion and a sad sign that the church is not an oasis.
“Getting started is difficult in many ways,” Simpson said. “A lot of churches are just not wanting to have a security presence on campus. … The only way you’re going to get buy-in from congregants is to create a task force that enables everybody’s voice to be heard.”
Presenters at the session offered tips for churches getting started with security:
- Build strong perimeters. Add cameras, lighting, and locks. Trim hedges, trees, and shrubbery to reduce hiding spots.
- Be proficient with communications. Many Episcopal schools use a mobile safety app, Rave, that allows people to stay in touch and know each other’s locations. Educate parishioners about where to escape or hide.
- Plan for who will call 911.
- Take advantage of training by various organizations, including state and federal bureaus of investigations. Simpson endorsed ALICE Training for active shooter response preparedness.
- Stage drills for what to do when a violent threat arises.
- Keep members informed without causing alarm.
“I kind of hope that we don’t go overboard,” Torres said. “We try to be as low-key as possible.”