Protecting Houses of Worship Seminar by U.S. Attorney’s Office – Eastern District of NC (Law Enforcement Support)

The public seminar on “Protecting Houses of Worship” sponsored by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina was composed of two main sessions: “Law Enforcement Support to Protecting Houses of Worship” and “Local Area Houses of Worship Discuss Security.”

Greenville Police Sergeant Mike Staffelbach presenting at “Protecting Houses of Worship,” sponsored by U.S. Attorney’s Office – Eastern District of NC. Photo by David Yamane

The first presenter in the first session was Greenville Police Sergeant Mike Staffelbach. His purpose was to set the issue of congregational security in context. He began by noting that the subject of protecting houses of worship is something he wouldn’t be talking about 10 years ago. He reviewed FBI statistics on active shooters, observing that of 10 instances in which citizens confronted active shooters (not necessarily with guns), in 8 of those incidents they stopped the shooter.

Emphasizing the importance of having plans in place for addressing security concerns, Sergeant Staffelbach said, “Odds that a church will never face a serious threat is probably a thing of the past. We need to start thinking that yes it will happen, we need to prepare for it now and in the future.” Although this is statistically untrue – the odds of a homicide taking place at a house of worship are quite low – it makes sense to think about extreme attacks as “low odds, high stakes” events. Even if the odds are low that a congregation will face a serious threat, it can make sense to prepare for such an event due to the high stakes if it does happen.

And yet, “many churches just don’t make security a priority. Most churches spend more time and money on training the choir than they do investing in the safety of their staff and guests.”

Sheriff Jim Marsal presenting at “Protecting Houses of Worship,” sponsored by U.S. Attorney’s Office – Eastern District of NC. Photo by David Yamane

Sergeant Staffelbach’s comments set the stage for Pitt County Deputy Sheriff Jim Marsal, who likewise observed, “I know of very few churches that don’t have a music director. . . . But how many have someone in charge of security?” The resources exist, but security simply has not been prioritized.

Sheriff Marsal’s contribution to the first session was to discuss practical actions to be taken by congregations. He has been active in working with local churches on doing security surveys of their property and on setting up security teams. (The three panelists in the second session had all consulted with Marsal.)

Sheriff Marsal begin by highlighting a fundamental challenge faced by houses of worship: “Welcome: Please Come and Join Us.” Most of the instances of crime in congregations happen in unrestricted, open access areas: parking lots, vestibules, sanctuaries, offices. The key to better security, therefore, is “hardening your church.”

As was highlighted at the National Organization for Church Safety and Security Management national conference we attended in August, Sheriff Marsal highlighted the fact that without support and leadership, congregational security will fail because it is complex and requires resources. Among the specifics listed were: a comprehensive security plan, exercises to test the security plan, relationships with local law enforcement, medical devices and members with medical training, a security team leader, and an adequate security force of employees and volunteers.

“If you think that just getting a concealed carry permit and sticking a .38 pistol in your pocket is going to work for you, it’s not. That’s not even close,” Marsal warned. Furthermore, “Don’t just think that coming to church on Sunday with an armed security team is going to be enough. It’s not.” This ignores threats that come from the inside, from people stealing from the kitchen to predators working in the children’s ministry. It also ignores issues of safety like having staff or volunteers trained in CPR and having an AED device on hand.

Other important aspects of “hardening” a house of worship can include: access control (securing doorways, restricting parking, locking windows, installing fencing), monitoring through alarms and/or security camera systems, and communication and notification systems (phone trees, text messaging, radio communications during services).

That said, Sheriff Marsal suggested it is a good idea to “maintain an adequate security force” of employees and volunteers. The average law enforcement response time in Pitt County is 5 to 10 minutes. And regular members often make better security forces than hired professional security because they know the congregation better and can recognize abnormalities more quickly.

In establishing a security team, some good practices are to find a leader from a military or law enforcement background who has a “tactical mindset.” Training of team members should be ongoing and everything needs to be documented, especially the “Standard Operating Procedures” of the security team.

Sheriff Marsal’s presentation set the stage for the second session which featured a discussion with three representatives of local houses of worship on security issues, moderated by a member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Staff.


  1. Maybe we should just move houses of worship into police stations.

    “…Even if the odds are low that a congregation will face a serious threat, it can make sense to prepare for such an event due to the high stakes if it does happen…”

    Interestingly, the same thinking about minimizing the occurrence of low probability/high consequence events drives safety thinking for nuclear facilities and reactors, submarines, chemical factories and the like. And of course, the misuse of high capacity, rapid firing weaponry. Except in that last case we don’t. But for those who like me are often frustrated by the calls to ban those black rifles and high capacity magazines, its the same thinking. Millions out there and vast majority never make the paper but how many Pulse Nightclubs and synagogue massacres do we tolerate?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s the same thinking, but when we look at the effectiveness in practice, both theoretical and documented, of the proposed “safety solutions” of bans or any other restrictions on “black rifles”, versus the safety plans for the other listed “Always/Never” situations (a documentary now available by that name about nukes I need to watch and everyone should, apparently) is that the former don’t/can’t really achieve the actual end goal, while those for the latter can and do.


      • Yep. Its a lot easier to control for low probability/high consequence events when you can put a fence/wall/ocean around something, such as a nuclear power plant, ICBM base, nuclear bomb factory, or a sub’s reactor module and screen out bad actors. One can better enforce rules and conduct of operations and incorporate a very high bar on those who are admitted to the “priesthood”. Been there, done that for 18 yrs and I suspect you have similar stories from the Corps. OTOH, there is some work out there suggesting we have been damn lucky. Given my job, I’ll be careful and let someone else suggest a reading list.

        By contrast, if you can’t put up a fence, its a porous safety barrier. Even European nations with strict gun laws can’t entirely stop mass shootings or terrorism, i.e., the Nov. 2015 Paris attacks, Charlie Hebdo, etc. But I suspect that by making some of these high consequence weapons harder to buy, we would drive down their more “routine” (ahem) misuse by brute statistics. After all, how often are NFA items used for misdeeds.

        Meanwhile, I do think we need to plan for SHTF moments. I don’t object to that. I just object to the limited notion that we can have a national firetrap as long as we have a lot of fire extinguishers handy. Sigh. I hate to sound like a gun controller but as my brother, who introduced me to ARs by virtue of his Daniel Defense recently told me, to slightly paraphrase, “we have to get this right or we will keep swinging between yin and yang and that isn’t good”. With both guns and toxic social media legal, we have both matches and gasoline at our fingertips.


  2. The “low odds high stakes” concept is all inclusive and applies across the board. I’m involved in a project to put emergency trauma kits in our public school and train teachers and staff to actually use that equipment if a catastrophic event should occurred. Those who have availed themselves of the free training recognize the “high stakes” involved; others not so much. The irony is that a school will spend $6000 to bring in a director for the annual school play but can’t find a couple thousand dollars for trauma kits. As noted, a church will spend more on the choir than on security, including medical equipment and training to use said equipment. Pushing in that direction also.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely! School safety is community safety. Training teaching staff as “First Care Providers” goes beyond their work environment. I live in tornado alley and a basic medically trained community is what will save lives no matter what the event. Unfortunately, those who would rather live in denial will be the first to shout, “Do Something.” I am more likely to use my training/trauma kit on a car accident than a school shooting, but like the fire extinguisher I keep in my car, I want to be prepared both for myself and, if necessary, for someone else.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.