What can religious officials and leaders of faith-based organizations do to prevent violence – from a targeted incident or a domestic violence event to a mass murder – at one of their houses of worship?

The church shooting and killing of nine innocent people this past June at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, should be a wake-up call for anyone responsible for security and safety in churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship across the country.

While Schools Now Have Better Security…

Since Columbine, school security has improved. Many more now have strict safety measures. Schools (K-12) are on constant lockdown to prevent unauthorized personnel from entering. Educational facilities are more likely to be in drug-free zones. Administrators know everyone who is on the grounds. Teachers are trained to call 9-1-1 if there are strangers on the playground.

…Comparable Safeguards Are Not Evident in Religious Buildings

There are several factors that can raise the risk of violence in a place of worship. They are a source of comfort as they welcome strangers and are open to the public. They often serve as a meeting place for participants in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. People take refuge at a church when distressed. We also know that major adverse changes in life circumstances, such as losses, failures (real or perceived), and rejections appear to stimulate attack-related behavior in targeted violence shooters.[1]

Recent Examples of Violence in Houses of Worship

Mass shootings at houses of worship are not a new phenomenon. Consider this list of church shootings, for example:

  • September, 1999 – Wedgwood Baptist Church, Fort Wood, Texas – Shooter murdered seven people and injured another seven before committing suicide.        
  • October, 2003 – Turner Monumental AME Church, Atlanta, Georgia – Shooter killed her pastor, her mother and then herself.
  • March, 2005 – Living Church of God, Brookfield, Wisconsin – Shooter killed the pastor and seven members including three children.
  • April, 2005 – College Park, Georgia – Shooter killed a church volunteer who was leading a group prayer.
  • February, 2006 – Zion Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan – Shooter killed a 38-year-old woman and wounded a girl sitting next to her.
  • May, 2006 – Ministry of Jesus Christ Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana – Shooter shot and killed four in-laws and his wife. 
  • May, 2007 – Moscow Presbyterian Church, Moscow, Idaho – Shooter killed two people before committing suicide.
  • August, 2007 – First Congregational Church, Neosho, Missouri – Shooter killed three people and wounding at least five others
  • December, 2007 – New Life Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado – Shooter opened fire at a training center in Arvada, Colorado, killing two and wounding two others. Later that afternoon, he attacked the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, killing two more people and injuring three before being shot and wounded by a member of the church’s congregation; he then committed suicide.

5 Questions Every Church Leader Should Ask and Answer

There are several critical questions for every house of worship considering a church security plan:

  1.  Do you have a trained security team?
  2.  Do you monitor your parking lots?
  3.  How would you handle someone under the influence or emotionally disturbed?
  4.  How would you handle someone disruptive or dangerous during a service?
  5. How would you handle stalking?

5 Best Practices to Follow

There are many steps you can take to prevent an act of violence. Here are a few we recommend you consider for a house of worship:

  1.  Secure any children’s activity area.
  2.  Ensure facilitators such as ushers greet public when entering.
  3.  Have these facilitators (e.g., ushers) share phone information with each other for text alerts.
  4.  Watch for people that look out of place; i.e., not following service protocols such as standing up when everyone is sitting or kneeling.
  5.  Ask the local police for an annual security awareness orientation for facilitators and staff

If you have questions on this or other related matters about developing a church security plan, please contact me at (312) 869-8500.

[1] Targeted violence” is defined as any incident of violence where a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to their violent attack. See Fein, R.A., Vossekuil, B. & Holden, G. “Threat Assessment: An Approach to Prevent Targeted Violence.” Research in Action. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice: Washington, D.C. (September, 1995), at 1-7. NCJ 155000

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