On Sunday, November 5, 2017, a gunman appeared at a church in Sutherland Springs, TX. Armed with a semiautomatic weapon, he killed two people outside the church before entering the building during the worship service. The gunman proceeded to shoot those in the sanctuary, ultimately killing 26 people and injuring dozens of others.
That same day, the estranged husband of a woman waited for the woman to leave church in Fresno, CA, accompanied by a male acquaintance. The husband approached the two in their vehicle and shot them dead in the church parking lot.
Because places of worship are open to the public, churches have become more vulnerable to these senseless acts of violence.
The Reality of Violence at Church
- Churches are not immune from acts of violence, which may include robbery, assault, rape, even attempted murder or murder.
- The majority of violent acts are carried out by people who have some connection to the congregation, whether through a domestic situation or other relationship to a church member or staff person.
- The most common violent act at churches, as with schools, is a shooting.
- Often there are pre-cursors or warning signs to the violent act, such as threats or previous outbursts, disputes, or confrontations.
- Many churches are unprepared for a violent event or its aftermath.
How to Make Your Church Less Vulnerable
- Working with your church’s Safety and Security Team, designate a point person on security issues to be the church security director. Define the responsibilities of that position.
- Conduct a security assessment to identify your church’s vulnerabilities. Ideally, this assessment is conducted in conjunction with your local law enforcement agency or other security professional.
- Develop a church security plan and guidelines with defined roles for all staff persons, including greeters, ushers, and other frontline workers and volunteers. Your local law enforcement agency may be a resource to you in forming the security plan.
- Include in the plan a seating location for ushers and/or security personnel (strategically stationed in both the front and the rear of the sanctuary), lockdown procedures for areas of the church, crisis communications, and an evacuation plan for the building.
- Establish a method for quickly communicating issues of concern to appropriate church personnel, such as the security director, as well as to authorities. Depending on the size of your church, walkie-talkies, two-way radios, pagers, and/or cell phones may be appropriate to have on hand.
- Work with your local law enforcement agency to provide training for staff and frontline workers and volunteers on topics such as dealing with disruptive individuals and identifying and diffusing potentially violent situations.
A Word about Security Personnel
The use of professional or volunteer security at church has become more commonplace in recent years. A church has several options regarding security: 1) hire off-duty law enforcement; 2) hire a professional security guard service; or 3) maintain its own security team. Considerations for each option:
Off-Duty Law Enforcement:
- Active law enforcement officers typically have superior training and experience in dealing with suspicious or disruptive individuals. This method is highly advantageous over the church having their own security team.
- In many jurisdictions, off-duty law enforcement officers responding to a criminal act do so as police officers, which can provide churches some measure of liability protection.
Hired Security Guard Force:
- The use of a professional security guard service provides a layer of liability protection for the church.
- The church still must undertake reasonable precautions in hiring the security service, such as checking references and fully understanding the service’s screening, training, supervision procedures as well as the approach to use of force that should be consistent with the church’s position.
- The church should verify that the security guard company has a license by obtaining a copy of it.
- The church should enter into a written agreement with the security guard service in which the service agrees to indemnify (hold harmless) the church from any injury or damage that might result from the service’s activities.
- The church should make sure that security guard service is fully insured and have the church added as an additional insured on the service’s insurance policies. Then, the church should obtain a copy of a certificate of insurance showing that it has been added as an additional insured on the service’s insurance policies.
Own Security Team:
- The church is responsible for running background checks and screening all security personnel.
- The church is responsible for the training and supervision of its security personnel.
- The church will in most circumstances be liable for the acts of its security personnel. In addition, individuals acting as the church’s security are generally responsible for their own actions and not protected under the church’s insurance.
Regardless of your choice, arming your church’s security guards is something that should only be undertaken in consultation with your church’s counsel, local law enforcement, and your insurance agent.
Additional resources on preparing for an active shooter situation are provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
Additional Steps to Make Your Church Staff and Members Less Vulnerable
- Don’t allow staff to work alone. Ideally ensure that there are at least two employees present at all times.
- Establish an internal distress code that will alert others in the office to your need for assistance. For example, if church office workers typically address each other by first name, your distress code may be that addressing a colleague by last name (i.e., “Mr. Smith”) will signal a distress situation.
- Consider keeping all church doors locked except when in use and then limit access points as much as possible.
- Consider installation of a “panic button” for frontline workers such as receptionists.
- Ensure that exterior lighting is adequate in all areas, especially parking lots and walkways. Ask your local law enforcement for assistance with a lighting audit.
- Always park your car in a well-lit area that is not obstructed by shrubbery, dumpsters, trucks, or vans.
- Ensure that all staff know of and understand the church’s security plan.
- Know where all telephones are located.
- Prepare for the worst case scenario.
While not every violent incident can be prevented, taking necessary steps can help your church become better prepared for responding to criminal acts at church and for communicating to your congregation during a crisis.
A significant part of this article was originally created for SafeChurch.com, an extensive safety library provided by GuideOne Insurance.
© 2023 GuideOne Insurance. GuideOne® is the registered trademark of the GuideOne Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific legal or risk management advice, nor are any suggested checklists or action plans intended to include or address all possible risk management exposures or solutions. You are encouraged to retain your own expert consultants and legal advisors in order to develop a risk management plan specific to your own activities.