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WEB-EXCLUSIVE: Be ready to respond to a violent incident at your church

By Eric Spacek, JD, ARM

Threatening gesture - Revealing a handgunChurches are often viewed as safe havens — places where community members can come to worship and learn without being harmed. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Violent incidents happen several times each year at churches all across the country.

Because places of worship are open to the public, they’ve become more vulnerable to these senseless acts of violence. And, many churches are unprepared for such a situation and its aftermath.

Since no church is immune to the risk of a violent episode occurring, all need to be prepared for a violent act.

Reality check!

No one likes to think of a church as a place where violence can happen. However, any number of incidents could occur, including robbery, assault, rape, murder, or the most common violent situation a church faces today: a shooting.

A majority of these violent acts are carried out by people who have some connection to the congregation. Because of this, it’s important to look for warning signs, as they’re often present — threats or previous outbursts, disputes or confrontations. Being aware of these precursors might help your church avoid a devastating situation.

Making your church less vulnerable

While violent acts aren’t 100-percent preventable, there are actions your organization can take to lessen its risk and be prepared in such an event. It’s imperative that your church has a safety and security team; this group is responsible for managing and preparing for all types of risks, including a violent episode. It’s recommended that one person on the team is designated as the point person on security issues.

Additionally, take the following measures:

Conduct a security assessment. This will 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. Include guidelines for defined roles for all staff persons, including greeters, ushers and other frontline workers and volunteers. Your local law enforcement agency might 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 rear of the sanctuary, as well as 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, such as a weapon, to appropriate church personnel. Depending on the size of your church, walkie-talkies, two-way radios, pagers and/or cell phones might be appropriate.

Establish a no-tolerance policy for fights, altercations and other disruptions.

Work with your local law enforcement agency. Together, provide training for staff and frontline workers and volunteers on topics such as dealing with disruptive individuals and identifying and diffusing potentially violent situations.

If a violent act occurs

  • In the event of a violent attack, first and foremost, protect the people in your congregation. To do this, follow these steps:
  • Call 911, as you’re able.
  • Keep the invader out by locking the doors and/or closing off areas of the church, if possible.
  • Remove all members and guests from the premises as quickly as possible if there’s an opportunity to do so.
  • Control panic situations quickly. You’ll be more likely to conduct a sequenced evacuation, if an opportunity arises.
  • Look for a leader (such as the pastor and/or security director) to take charge and issue orders to be followed. All orders must be clear and direct, such as:

“Ushers, secure the building.”
“[Fill in name], contact the police.”
“[Fill in name], secure the nursery.”
“Everyone, take cover on the floor.”

Make staff and members less vulnerable

As always, protecting the people inside of your building is of utmost priority. Never allow your staff to work alone, and always ensure there are at least two employees present at all times.

Establish an internal distress code, which will alert others in the office to your need for assistance. For example, if the office workers typically address each other by first name, your distress code could be addressing each other by last name (i.e., Mr. Smith).

Keep all church doors locked, except when in use, and then limit the number of access points. You also might want to consider installing a panic button, and making sure that all staff know and understand the church’s security plan. Preparing for the worst-case scenario will be useful if such an event were to occur.

Having the proper exterior lighting also will help protect those inside the building. Ensure that it’s adequate in all areas, especially parking lots and walkways. Always park your car in a well-lit area — one that’s not obstructed by shrubs, dumpsters or other vehicles. If necessary, talk with your local law enforcement agency for assistance with a lighting audit.

Err on the side of caution

While not every violent incident can be prevented, taking these steps can help your church be better prepared for responding to a criminal act, and communicating to your congregation. Being prepared prior to a violent act can make all the difference if you’re ever faced with such a crEric Spacekisis.

Eric Spacek, JD, ARM is senior church risk management & loss control manager at GuideOne Insurance in West Des Moines, IA.

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