By Neal Duckworth
Houses of worship are not the safe refuge they once were. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s recently released report on Hate Crime Statistics for 2020 highlighted how churches, synagogues, and mosques are all vulnerable to violent attack, arson, vandalism, theft, and other crimes. Of the more than 8,000 incidents in the United States, religious bias was the third-highest cause of hate crimes, with 13.3 percent of all victims being targeted due to their religion and 3.4 percent of the incidents at houses of worship. While attacks on Jews and Muslims led the list, Sikhs, Christians, Mormons, and others all felt the fear, pain, and frustration from being targeted for their religious beliefs.
The Department of Homeland Security developed a Security Guide for Mitigating Attacks on Houses of Worship in 2020 that provides a very detailed analysis of attacks before 2020, with a specific focus on armed attacks, vehicle ramming, bombs, and arson. Always remember that crimes may occur inside or outside of the building, so parking lots should be considered part of church property.
Houses of worship are often seen as soft targets because of being unoccupied for extended periods, and the schedule of services and activities are almost always posted online. The high costs of technical security measures will usually be outvoted in support of more hands-on assistance to parishioners.
Here are three ways to enhance security, as well as increase staff and congregation confidence, while not breaking the budget.
Doors and Windows — The most efficient method for safeguarding your house of worship is by ensuring your doors and windows are locked, and that the locks work. Some older doors may have a gap between the door and jamb that make defeating the lock easy. Ensure the doors are open during services and locked afterward. Some churches have even begun locking the doors when services begin and posting an usher to open the door for late arrivals.
If you are replacing windows, research the sturdiest models, to prevent objects such as incendiary devices, rocks, and bricks from being thrown through. Also consider a using a stick-on security film to windows to prevent shards of glass from weather or projectiles from dispersing inside the building.
Landscape and Lighting — Many houses of worship can easily reduce places where criminals may hide by taking a walk-around at night and in the daytime to review landscape and lighting. Bushes and low-hanging tree limbs must be trimmed back to prevent hiding spots for criminals and to maximize the reach of illumination. Swap out old exterior lights for LED lights to increase brightness and expand the reach of illumination by installing flood lights and motion detectors, if funding permits.
Train Staff and Ushers. In a time of crisis, such as an active shooter event, fire, or natural disaster, have your staff ready and able to assist. While some houses of worship that have a more clearly identified threat may employ armed security guards, not all churches require this action. Churches should consider providing jackets to key personnel to clearly identify them during a crisis as they give directions. Consider forest green, gold, or another color that will clearly stand out in a crowd. Uniformed staff may also provide deterrence to criminals by standing outside as people enter and exit and walking around outside looking for unusual things or persons.
A common security practice is to “Initiate a Hello” to unknown or suspicious persons to gauge the risk they pose, which often serves as a deterrent. Staff should also be trained to establish barricades within interior rooms, and to organize fighting back during an active shooter event, if necessary. Techniques to fight back might include throwing hymnals and prayer books, dropping chairs from balconies or lofts, or other distractions to support the escape or protection of the congregation.
If your house of worship is subject to threats of violence or has experienced previous incidents, consider applying for funding to add additional security measures such as cameras and additional lighting through the Nonprofit Security Grant Program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There is no way to mitigate all threats, especially when faced with decreasing attendance and competing financial priorities. But these steps will raise the consciousness of security among your staff and, by extension, your parishioners.
Neal Duckworth is a retired U.S. Marine and a former intelligence officer, and the co-owner of D2 Northeast Solutions, a security consultancy.