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.”
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.”
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.