Shootings prompt uneasy church security talks
From wire and staff reports
March 16, 2009

Shootings prompt uneasy church security talks

Shootings prompt uneasy church security talks
From wire and staff reports
March 16, 2009

Church security issues have become a fresh cause of concern in the wake of several deadly incidents, including a church shooting March 8 that left the pastor First Baptist Church of Maryville, Ill., dead.

In recent months:

  • A man stunned a group of tourists in February when he fatally shot himself at the foot of a cross at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.
  • In November, a gunman allegedly killed his estranged wife, and a worshipper who rushed to her aid, at a church in Clifton, N.J.
  • Last July, a man with an apparent grudge against liberals opened fire inside a Knoxville, Tenn., Unitarian Universalist congregation, killing two and wounding six.

These events, plus others from recent years, have churches large and small wondering what, if anything, they can and should do to ensure safe environments. It can be a tough question to answer, not just because of limited resources but also because most congregations strive to be welcoming, especially to strangers.

“There can be a tension between being an open, inviting church and being a secure one,” says Eric Spacek, senior risk manager for GuideOne Insurance, which insures about 40,000 congregations. “It’s a challenge that most churches are struggling with.”

Jeffrey Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network, said 75 percent of churches have no security plan, making them a “soft target” for attack. He said security isn’t only about preventing things from happening, but having a plan for dealing with catastrophic events after they occur.

Geron Gambill, church administrator at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church in Fayetteville, said four students studying corporate security in a master’s program at the Fort Bragg campus of Webster University are doing a complete security analysis for the church. They will look at a variety of issues, including the church preschool and childcare, the building doors and alarms and lighting outside the building.

“I’m awaiting the results of that,” he said.

Gambill said that statistically it’s unlikely for any particular church to face an attack.

“You’re more likely to get hit by a tornado or lightening,” he said.

Putting a policy in place to deal with armed intruders would be emotionally distressing for the church, Gambill said.

“I don’t have a plan for dealing with an armed person and I doubt most churches do,” he said.

Recent data on church violence is scarce because agencies generally don’t track violent crime by venue, but crime experts estimate that it remains extremely rare, even as it generates big headlines.

Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Jacqueline Cohen suspects church violence might even be less prevalent today than in generations past, in part because criminals have more alternatives if they’re seeking an audience or a reliable place to locate their victims.

Church violence appears to be increasing, Cohen says, because a shooting in church “distinguishes it from other murders, and it makes people afraid to be in a place where they otherwise feel safe, and those are the dynamics that (lead to widespread coverage) in the media.”

Even so, churches are concerned by incidents that capture attention, and a cottage industry has cropped up in recent years to advise them on security issues.

Dave Travis, managing director of the Leadership Network, told the Associated Press that most megachurches have coordinated security plans and undercover guards, but smaller congregations are often more vulnerable.

Experts recommend churches begin their security efforts by learning to spot their vulnerabilities.

That means conferring with a security consultant or local law enforcement, according to Rick Anderson, founder of Church Security Solutions in Salem, Ore.

From there, Anderson suggests assembling a team to look for “pre-incident indicators,” such as a stranger who appears nervous, avoids eye contact and cuts casual conversation short. Attention to the unordinary, coupled with strategic placement of team members around the sanctuary, can help reduce the risk of an incident by making it harder to pull off.

But such lessons aren’t always easy to learn when churchgoers strive to be accommodating in a house of worship. “If somebody looks at us crossways or we get an uneasy feeling, we tend to forgive them and go on about our business,” Anderson says. “We actually suppress our gut check, (but) we shouldn’t dismiss cues that in our gut tell us something is not right.”

Other consultants say thinking through worst-case scenarios can go a long way toward preventing them. Chuck Paris, a church security consultant in McLean, Va., encourages congregations to do exercises that simulate a terrorist attack. For some churches, just having a few unarmed people trained in tactics to protect their pastors may be sufficient, Paris said.

For churches considering whether to have an armed presence, the issues get more complex.

Anderson generally encourages congregations to enlist armed members who are law enforcement officers with access to firearms and emergency training. Having a uniformed security presence, he said, can be “a great deterrent.”

Others, however, aren’t so sure.

Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist with a specialty in violent criminal behavior at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas, says would-be gunmen who feel victimized and want to extract high-profile revenge aren’t going to worry about running afoul of a uniformed officer.

“Most of these shooters aren’t intending to get away. They’re intending to die,” Ferguson said. “If a person thinks he’s going to die, (a uniformed officer) probably isn’t going to act as a deterrent in most of these cases because the shooter is suicidal.”

Spacek, from the GuideOne insurance company, recommends that churches consult with local police to determine an appropriate level of security. He noted that most church claims for violent crime are related to domestic disputes that spill over into the church.

In church, “the existence of a weapon can provide some additional security to deter certain acts or protect individuals,” Spacek said in an e-mail, adding that it doesn’t come without cost. “It can also increase the liability exposure for the organization.”

After the March 8 shooting, church security consultant Marc Brooks fielded calls from eight congregations eager to get firearms into the hands of worship staff or volunteers.

Those churches will first need to pass Brooks’ state-certified test to carry a concealed weapon.

But keeping a congregation safe from violent outbursts doesn’t always have to involve guns in the sanctuary, he said.

“If you need firearms training, then we do that,” says Brooks, a deputy sheriff and chief instructor for Protective Services Training & Consultants in Thornton, Colo. But sometimes church security “doesn’t require a firearm. It just requires that you’re alert and that you’re in shape and that you’re able to protect your pastor.”