A Prayer For Security
Securing houses of worship may be easier said than done
These headlines will remain seared in our
- Nine shot dead in a Charleston,
- Six killed, four wounded at Wisconsin
- Three die in Overland Park, Kan. Jewish Community
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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 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
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
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
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
“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,”
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 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
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.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Security Today.