A Prayer For Security

Securing houses of worship may be easier said than done

These headlines will remain seared in our minds:

  • Nine shot dead in a Charleston, S.C. church
  • Six killed, four wounded at Wisconsin Sikh temple
  • Three die in Overland Park, Kan. Jewish Community Center shooting

Houses of worship have long been known as welcoming, open havens, offering support and guidance for people in need, but that mission is being challenged by active shooters and other criminals committing assault, theft, arson and vandalism.

Here’s a shocking statistic: since 1999 there have been 550 deadly force deaths, 140 in the past two years, on faith-based property or during an off-site religious event. According to these statistics from a leading church security expert, twice as many people die in violent incidents at faith-based events as in school shootings.

Admittedly, the majority of the nation’s 350,000 houses of worship have not reported violent crimes. Yet, each day brings new reports of crimes against religious facilities and congregation members. Three years ago this situation caught the attention of six federal agencies which issued a report recommending houses of worship and first responders collaborate to create emergency plans.

John Mosebar, vice president of marketing for Aiphone Corp., said faith-based organizations need to follow the lead of schools that have recently focused on hardening their entries against criminals of all types.

“It’s largely about protecting the entry,” Mosebar said. “Unfortunately, houses of worship can no longer be open to all visitors 24/7. Best practices begin with solid-core doors with locks and then supplementing those with complementary layers of security to create additional barriers to access.”

According to Mosebar, a variety of electronic and low-tech solutions can be placed unobtrusively so as to not interfere with the aesthetics of a sanctuary and surrounding buildings.

Oakland, Calif.-based Highcom Security Services currently protects dozens of faith-based facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, said president Sammy Joselewitz. He agrees with Mosebar that hardening the perimeter is critical, but getting houses of worship to take appropriate action before experiencing an emergency is even more important.

“Leadership at many houses of worship still tends to be in a reactive, not proactive, state of mind,” Joselewitz said. “They wait until something happens nearby or a major nationally reported event occurs.”

Many then impulsively buy an integrator’s suggestions without regard to cost or value to overall security, potentially resulting in a false sense of safety and unnecessary spending. Here are some of the security layers Mosebar and

Joselewitz recommend with a caveat that decisions on specific equipment, personnel and policy and procedures be made only following a thorough risk assessment of each facility.

ELECTRONIC LOCKS

Solid-core doors, with electronic locks are a major barrier to criminals. These need to be placed on all exterior doors, without exception. They need to be kept locked whenever possible. For those faith-based organizations also operating schools, doors with locks on the inside are a must for classrooms.

VIDEO INTERCOMS

Think of video intercoms as the facility doorbell. Visitors requesting access into a locked door can push a buzzer on a unit placed just outside the entry. An embedded camera and microphone send information to a base station on an office desk.

A staff member can view the visitor and initiate a two-way conversation while sitting safely behind locked doors. A button on the master station will open electronic locks allowing the visitor to enter.

“If there’s any doubt about the person’s intentions, the door should remain locked and secure or first responders should be called to intervene,” Mosebar said.

Video intercoms can also be used on interior doors protecting clergy offices or rooms where money or valuable items are kept.

ACCESS CONTROL

A basic access control system will enable employees and regular volunteers to enter a defined door using a card key or by entering their PIN into a reader outside the entry. Access systems have a number of advantages, among them is the ability to quickly delete and replace lost or stolen cards and PINs in seconds. Also, the systems provide an audit trail showing who has entered which doors and when.

AUDIO INTERCOMS

By linking all offices, the sanctuary and other facilities with audio intercoms, requests for help can be immediately shared with any or all staff members and congregants.

“Intercoms allow for the simultaneous facilitywide sharing of lock-in-place or evacuation instructions,” Mosebar said. “That’s true for both manmade and natural emergencies.”

PANIC BUTTONS

Discretely placed panic buttons throughout the facility and/or pendants worn by staff members can immediately contact police or other first responders in case of an emergency.

SECURITY CAMERAS

Security cameras continue to become smaller and less expensive making them ideal for monitoring the parking lot, facility perimeter, sanctuary entries, offices, clergy housing and education buildings. Digital cameras provide video that can be shared via the Internet with first responders providing a view of events as they respond to emergencies.

CRIME PREVENTION THROUGH ENVIRONMENTAL DESIGN

In order to provide the best low-cost practices for securing a house of worship, make sure all trees and bushes have been trimmed so they don’t provide a hiding place for criminals. Overgrown landscaping can also block the views of first responders patrolling the area.

Since many houses of worship are used into the evening, bright lighting is critical for parking lots. Building perimeters, particularly main entries, should be well lit. Lighting has been shown to be a strong criminal deterrent.

Fencing and gates help channel visitors to a facility’s preferred public entry. They also act as a barrier to children that might be in daycare or school facilities on the grounds.

Signs offer valuable visitor information about the entry procedure. If the property has security cameras, announce it through plainly visible signs as cameras are also a strong criminal deterrent.

SECURITY GUARDS

Joselewitz suggested employing security guards, especially when doors remain open, such as during regular services, weddings, funerals and other events. A well-trained and experienced guard is not only a criminal deterrent, but can also spot potential trouble before it develops.

“By conveying a strong security presence with equipment and guards, a house of worship shows it won’t be an easy target, and that frequently sends criminals looking for another opportunity,” Joselewitz said.

As an example, the 21-year-old man accused of killing nine people in a Charleston, S.C. church last June, told a friend a week earlier he wanted to attack a local college, but changed his plans due to tight campus security measures. He chose the church instead.

POLICIES AND PROCEDURES

Written policies and procedures may represent the least expensive way to help prevent and mitigate threats, Joselewitz said. These policies should be written by a security team, ideally including active and retired law enforcement officials and selected laypeople.

During events, security team members should look for suspicious behavior such as people leaving during inappropriate times, especially anyone leaving behind objects, those dressed in a trench coat during warm weather or loitering in the parking lot. Regular drills also help prepare staff and congregants to respond to a real emergency.

Throughout the planning process it’s best to work with a security consultant or system integrator with experience meeting the specific needs and concerns of houses of worship. They also will have the knowledge to help select the products and services to maximize the security investment.

Security represents a cost most faith-based organizations would prefer to avoid. But it is no longer enough for congregations to pray for the safety and security of their members, clergy and facilities.

Both Mosebar and Joselewitz said they are gratified to see a recent upturn in houses of worship working together and with federal, state and local law enforcement to heighten security.

“While all these best practices are no guarantee to stop every criminal event, they will put houses of worship in a much stronger position to safely continue their valued missions.” Mosebar said.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Security Today.

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