Church safety continues to be a top priority for many churches, but it is not a priority for all churches; it should be. With more frequency, there are incidents involving churches around the country where violent incidents occur resulting in injury, and too often, the loss of life. Churches want to be welcoming, but today, they also need to be discerning of all who enter their doors.
The most prolific attack in recent years (2017) was the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting that took the lives of 26 people and injured 20 more. But while we tend to think of these kinds of incidents occurring at large churches, Sutherland Springs was a small country church indicating that no church is immune from a violent occurrence.
Carl Chinn, President of the Faith Based Security Network www.fbsnamerica.com has compiled statistics on faith based deadly force incidents associated with faith-based operations in the U.S.
Deadly Force Incidents Have Risen
From 1999, the year Carl Chin started compiling statistics, until 2017, the most recent year of completed statistics, deadly force incidents have risen from 10 (1999) to 261 (2017). The total number of incidents for the cumulative years are 1,727 and the total number of deaths as a result of the incidents are 821. The houses of worship with the most deadly force incidents are: Unaffiliated- 398; Baptist-375; Catholic- 244.
Christmas Season Vigilance
As we enter into the Christmas season, churches everywhere will be planning special activities to commemorate the birth of Christ. These include musical productions, outdoor live nativity scenes, activities for children and youth and the necessary promotion to get as many people involved throughout the community as possible. That being said, high profile events that historically have higher attendance than normal deserve special attention in terms of security. Along with active shooter concerns, churches have to be concerned about terrorism as churches present an easy “soft” target for groups wishing to inflict causalities.
Bridgett Johnson, Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today, wrote in a November 1 newsletter, “Faith-based organizations and houses of worship have been cautioned to exercise extra awareness as retaliation from ISIS could fuel attacks in the wake of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death during a heightened terror propaganda season from pre-Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.”
As with every active shooter or terrorist incident, the news cycle for the following days, and sometimes weeks, focus on the predictable discussions of how to prevent these incidents, what could have been done to recognize the signs, and the politics of gun control. Then we go through a period of time when there are no newsworthy active shooter incidents. This is when we fall into the mindset of knowing we are all vulnerable, but it probably won’t happen here. It is at this juncture that we become more vulnerable because the motivation wanes for taking the kinds of actions in assessing security (conducting comprehensive threat assessments, implementing security measures, organizing safety teams, etc.) that could significantly reduce the risk of active shooter incidents or other types of violent occurrences.
Counter Threat Group has identified 5 key actions that organizations should take to reduce these threats. Organizations are constrained by exhaustible resources whether it is money, people or knowledge. As a result, we identified 5 actions that can be accomplished with minimal strain on any organizations available resources. Whether you are a church, business, school or any other organization, these steps are affordable and easily achieved. While the threat can never be eliminated, it can certainly be reduced, and a proactive mindset can make a huge difference in reducing or eliminating the loss of life.
1. Contact an outside group to conduct a comprehensive threat assessment of the premises.
This is the first and most important step any organization can take. A qualified group for the outside that conducts assessments is much better suited to adequately identify the vulnerabilities of your church, business, school or facility than someone from within your organization. When you are part of the organization, you don’t see the things that are obvious to someone looking at it for the first time. Counter Threat Group has conducted a number of comprehensive threat assessments for churches and businesses, and in every case, we identified vulnerabilities that were not obvious to those who worked there.
An adequate assessment should include a 360 walk around, externally and internally of the facility. The items inspected should include lighting, surveillance infrastructure if any, alarms, entry and exit points, accessibility, crime statistics for the vicinity of the organization and roadway access. It should also include interviews of key employees within the organization to identify safety concerns, perceived vulnerabilities and people of concern. Often times, employees won’t discuss or reveal concerns internally, but will to professionals from the outside when asked.
2. Organize a volunteer safety team.
More and more churches are organizing safety teams. All of them need to. This is something that should be addressed while implementing action step #1 during the assessment phase. All organizations whether churches, businesses or schools can do this. While this is easier for organizations like churches to do, businesses can still develop safety teams and safety protocols within their organizations that are focused on employee safety.
Outside security assessment groups can usually help in the organizing and training of a safety team. The sophistication can vary, but organizing a group of volunteers who are willing to be the eyes and ears for the organization is the first step. Team members should always be on the lookout for unusual activity, or individuals who appear out of place. A reporting structure for concerning activity should also be implemented. Furthermore, it has been proven that when a person who is “up to something” is noticed or encountered by another person, the likelihood of them carrying out their plan is reduced, becomes compromised or they have second thoughts.
Also, members of safety teams are scattered throughout the church or the place of work which means more coverage.
Some important points about “conceal and carry”
More law-abiding citizens, members of safety teams, etc., are getting permits to carry concealed firearms due to the concern for their personal and family’s safety. It is important to note that in the event of an active shooter incident, the first responders’ number one objective is to take out (neutralize) the shooter. When law enforcement enters the premises where a shooting has or is occurring and they see you with a gun, you stand a good chance of being immediately met with lethal force. While your intentions are to defend the innocents and perhaps engage the real shooter, it is a risk that you must understand. It could also divert law enforcement’s attention to you rather than to the actual shooter. Discuss this with your local law enforcement. You should inform local law enforcement of your safety team procedures in the event of an active shooter incident.
3. Develop an evacuation plan
This step is not only important for active shooter incidents, but is useful for natural disasters and fires. Organizations who have implemented this step usually have the plan posted in the rooms, offices and common areas of their facility. This provides everyone within the organization the opportunity to study the plan in advance to know where they should go in an emergency depending on where they happen to be in the building.
In the event of an active shooter, procedures should be pre-determined for an identified room to hide, appropriate exits and rally points away from the premises-all depending of course on where the shooting is taking place.
4. Conduct awareness education for your employees, church members, students, etc. – “Run, Hide, Fight”
There should be some means of training and educating your employees, church membership or students about the need to adopt a preparedness and proactive mindset. While none of us want to think it could ever happen here, or to us, it is important that people shift their thinking to what if it does happen here? What would you do if you are sitting in a church pew, an auditorium, a business office, a restaurant or any other public setting and a shooter comes through the door. Do you know where all the exits are? This is where advanced preparedness can make a difference in survivability. The Department of Homeland Security developed a good video called “Run, Hide, Fight”. This video teaches how to react to active shooter incidents. If you can think through how you will react depending on where the scenario develops in relation to where you are, than you are way ahead of most people in preparation.
One of the saddest things to hear about after a violent incident, like the one that occurred in Pittsburgh, is to hear about how the members of the congregation “froze” once the shooting started. That is the result of the lack of forethought about this kind of event ever occurring. We must all think through our own personal plan of action for everywhere we go. That plan should include the willingness to tackle and overpower- hopefully with the help of others- an active shooter that might be in proximity to you.
5. Develop a reporting structure for individuals or incidents of concern.
Develop a mechanism for church members, employees, students or safety team members to report any occurrences or incidents via an activity log that are concerning or out of the ordinary. Develop a relationship with local law enforcement and discuss any concerns with them. Make them aware of individuals that you may be co ceremony about whether within or outside of your organization. Make them aware of people who are part of your church or business who might also be participating on your safety team.
Your organization can implement all of the above 5 steps with minimal resources. By effectively considering these steps as a plan of action for your church, business or school you have made an important commitment to reducing the threat and improving the safety of your organization and its people.