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CHURCH SAFETY STRATEGIES: Protecting the flock with immediate responders

February 4, 2020

by John Boch
Having attended many church security/safety seminars both public and private over the years, I have seen a number of common themes in the courses.

Interestingly, none have been shooting classes. Why not? Because typically, the gun comes into play only if the safety team people have completely failed to interrupt the bad guy’s plans and failed to de-escalate the situation.

Acknowledging Real-World Threats.

People, especially those oblivious to crime and violence, think that church is a sacred place. Regrettably, bad guys, religious bigots, terrorists and lunatics don’t respect churches as anything special. To the contrary, in fact.

Most folks don’t realize just how much crime happens in churches, either. Family/domestic violence, stalker violence, robberies, thefts and vandalism all happen with alarming regularity. And according to a recent national survey, only about 40% of incidents are reported to the police.

What’s more, churches are second only to schools as the most common public location for mass murder. Why is that? Probably in part because killers perceive church attendees, like school children, as meek and mild.

Where’s the most dangerous place at church? The alter? The bathrooms? Daycare? None of the above. It’s the parking lot.

Think about it: stalkers, estranged and angry spouses/relatives, crazies, bad Tinder dates – anyone who knows their intended victim regularly attends church knows where and when they will be there. They can personally confront and/or attack their target, or break into the vehicle or vandalize it.

At the same time, neighborhood criminals can loiter in or near parking lots at the appointed time, looking for vulnerable/appealing victims to rob or cars to break into. Parking lots provide a lot of places for someone to linger fairly unobtrusively and even more places to conceal one’s self from potential victims.

Recall the New Life Church would-be spree murder attack in Colorado Springs, CO from 2007. Just as services started, a killer rolled in with guns and hundreds of rounds of ammo. He shot five people walking towards the entrance, killing two teen sisters.

Then volunteer church safety team member Jeanne Assam engaged the rifle-wielding killer with her carry pistol, striking him multiple times, ending his attack. She had thousands of people inside that megachurch behind her and saved countless lives with her courageous act.

New Life Church. Colorado Springs, CO.

Thankfully, those sorts of spree killings are relatively rare, but as high-profile attacks in Texas and New York City in recent weeks have shown, they persist with regularity.

Generally, two types of people pose a threat for spree killings. There are the lunatics/emotionally disturbed persons like the man in the White Settlement, Texas church. Churches draw crazies like moths to a flame. Thankfully most are relatively harmless, but not always. The other common category for attacker? Those inspired by religious hatred like the NYC synagogue attacker, a radical Muslim.

What other threats do churches face, some more common than others? Weather, fire, child abduction and child sex abuse. And medical issues should not be overlooked, especially as church populations age.

HARDEN THE FACILITY!

Appearances can make a world of differences in reducing the likelihood of incidents. Just as taking some simple steps to make your home less appealing to burglars / attackers, a few simple steps will help “harden” your place of worship. Even if a place of worship doesn’t have a formal safety team, these steps will make their facility safer.

First and foremost: Exterior Lighting. Yeah, church happens on Sunday mornings for most, but even those facilities typically have Christmas Eve services after dark. And larger churches have evening services.

Install good lighting (the more the better) for the parking lot and upon the structure itself for the same reason gas stations have very bright lighting. Good lighting will help deter and discourage criminals looking to accost worshippers as well as burglars and vandals.

Second: Video surveillance. Excellent, very high definition systems are readily available for less than $500 and they include options for remote viewing via the Internet, recording, and much more.

It doesn’t cost a lot for modern, ultra-high resolution video surveillance which this certainly isn’t. Nevertheless, even old systems can detect problems like this.

With video surveillance, a safety team member at the back of the sanctuary can watch the cameras for people loitering in the parking lot during the services as well as observing hallways and daycare areas for problems. And for larger churches, it’s an extra set of eyes on parking lots and entrances watching for unauthorized activity.

Restrict access. If your church has multiple entrances, end this practice. Lock all unmonitored entrances and force everyone to come through a single entrance or maybe a pair of entrances at the most.

Each entrance should have a safety team member monitoring it, in addition to one or more greeters.

Again, don’t leave the back door(s) open for someone to sneak in undetected with all manner of weapons to launch a spree killing attack. Or to walk out with loot from a theft.

Of course, having a church safety team composed of members with a guardian mindset will make a world of difference in an emergency. However, it requires selecting the right people for the right jobs.

While anyone can and should protect his or her own family with a firearm or other tools while worshiping, a church safety team member is, in essence, representing the church. As such, it is prudent for church leadership to vet them to some degree before bringing them on in a formal capacity.

“Do I need a carry license to carry in my church?” If someone doesn’t know the answer to that question, they probably can’t articulate when the law allows you to use deadly force. This is not an ideal candidate for “church security.”

Would that person be better than nothing? That’s debatable. You don’t want a “church safety team” member drawing a gun on someone over a heated child custody dispute in the daycare area. That’s bad for business. Even a single incident involving inappropriate gunplay (or negligent discharges) will drive away church members just as fast as an adulterer or child molester as a clergyman.

Ideally, recruit off-duty professionals: EMTs, medical professionals (docs, nurses, etc.), firefighters and cops. Grab up other volunteers well-suited to helping – those with that guardian mindset, and for those armed, with a level head and a carry license.

How many members?

Experts suggest at least two good guy team members for every 100 worshippers. Not all will make every service, obviously, and not all will necessarily be armed.

What to name the team?

Church “security” vs. “safety.” Calling it a Church Safety Team sounds a lot less threatening and intimidating to the more squeamish among any church’s leadership. Remember, a lot of people remain scared by guns and/or intimidated by those who carry them. Downplay the role of firearms, because after all, guns are not the primary tool of team members.

Furthermore, people volunteering should be covered by their personal legal “insurance”/”carry insurance” programs out there, including US Law Shield, should they become involved in using force (physical or deadly) in self-defense while volunteering in their churches.

Speaking of insurance, anyone that says that their church insurance prohibits guns should do a little more research. In fact, at least one church insurance carrier charges a higher rate for facilities that ban firearms. That company correctly assesses than a ban on guns poses a greater risk than welcoming firearms in the hands of good people.

Team Equipment.

#1: Good communications. Team members need instant communications. And discrete communications as well. Radios are cheap, as are ear buds. For a couple hundred bucks you can equip team members with cheap FRS radios (with earpieces) from Walmart. Anything beats nothing. For less than $100 per person you can get really decent Chinese radios and earpieces. Team members may be willing to buy and maintain their own radios as well.

#2: Video surveillance system. Reduces manpower needed to watch parking lots for mopes loitering around looking for victims. Or other trouble. Especially when it’s ten below zero and snowing during services. Cameras can also help monitor hallways, the daycare areas, and other key locations, reducing safety team staffing needs.

#3: Proper first aid/medical equipment. To include an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), tourniquets and trauma dressings like Israeli Battle Dressings (aka “Emergency Bandages”).

Yes, AEDs are $1500 worth of expensive. However, if it saves the life of a congregation member, the life saved will make it worth while. If you really want to be mercenary about it, the survivor’s continued tithing will likely pay for the AED and then some.

Training.

If your church team doesn’t have training, get it!

* Train everyone willing to learn (including teenagers) on CPR and basic first aid. Consider a Stop the Bleed course as well. Consider courses after services, at a pizza party or as part of all-night slumber party activities to help boost attendance/participation.

* Train “safety team” members and greeters on situational awareness. Yes, include the greeters. Greeters often know faces and names (and sometimes everyone’s business as well), and they will recognize new people. Greeters can also detect problems in regulars (such as evidence of domestic abuse) or for problems immediately outside the doors.

Make sure the greeters also have radios (perhaps without an earpiece on a separate channel) to instantly communicate any urgent issues they notice to a team leader or someone at a central monitoring station watching the cameras.

* Safety team members should also receive training on de-escalation techniques and some basic hand-to-hand techniques including take-downs. Because sometimes it takes more than a stern word to dissuade an aggressor – but requires far less than deadly force.

Contingency planning.

Weather situation: Where to shelter in case of tornado?
Medical emergency: Identify who will admit first responders and bring them to the patient. Who will bring the first aid kid/AED?
Security: Establish lockdown procedures in case of incident outside on property.
For security incidents inside: plans to protect the congregation and move the pastor and his or her family to safety.
Fire: Create a sound evacuation plan.
Set up procedures to identify those authorized to take kids out of the daycare areas.
Speaking of daycare areas, have procedures in place for youth leaders there in case of emergencies.

Also formulate a general plan how to handle lunatics, stalkers, and suspicious persons before it happens. While no specific plan will survive first contact, a general plan will allow participants to fill in the specific details to fit the actual encounter.

Don’t forget weekday/weeknight events.

Recall the Charleston, SC church murder spree happened at a weeknight Bible study… Try to have a trained team member either attend as a participant or be present at weekday/weeknight events. Remember that good lighting and limited entrance rules still apply for these evening and non-church service events.

Now is an ideal time to consider safety.

With the video from the West Freeway Church of Christ, now is a good time to bring up church safety with your church’s leadership.

And frankly, there’s no reason churches shouldn’t work together to bring in subject matter experts to do larger seminars. This will help make the expense of outside expert training quite affordable.

If you already have a team at your church, congrats. Don’t forget to revisit your contingency plans and conduct refresher training. Make your church an even harder target.

So everyone can worship happily ever after.

About the author…
John Boch has studied under numerous top-tier instructors nationwide and has taught firearms and personal protection for over twenty years.

3 Responses to CHURCH SAFETY STRATEGIES: Protecting the flock with immediate responders

  1. Ken, the Christian on February 6, 2020 at 12:50 am

    Nice job, John. Good content!

  2. Morning Rush on February 7, 2020 at 7:08 pm

    Great info, indeed. Thank you!

  3. Joe on February 24, 2020 at 4:52 am

    Re: Church Lighting …please make to use GOOD lighting NOT BRIGHT lighting- there is a proven difference.
    Bad bright lighting can be worse than NO lighting. Glaring, uncovered light sources and simply swamping a house or parking lot with bright glaring lights do NOT make the area safer and has been proven to encourge theft and criminal activiy.

    Using fewer, properly designed “full cut-off” fixtures that prevent the familiar “glare bomb” lighting method will help Increase visabilty and reduce the abilty to “hide” in the glare. So you like looking into glaring high powered light fixtures? No. and it is used by “bad” people to cover their their presence.

    Please go to the “International Dark Sky Association” for information on proper lighting methods for your home and Church. You will find research that shows more beighter lighting is not the answer ! Properly designed fixtures that “hide” the glaring bulb and directs light only downward onto the intended area is the best method.

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