Church security: helping worshipers feel safe

By Eric Spacek

Violence is an all-too-common occurrence in the United States these days, and churches are certainly not immune to armed intruders. Over the past decade, a number of  mass shootings have taken  place in houses of worship — events that are sure to test the faith of even the most stalwart of believers.

Church-goers are certainly taking notice — and they’re concerned. According to Church Mutual’s new “Risk Radar Report — Safety in America,” more than half (54%) of Americans say their top safety concern while attending events is an armed intruder or physical violence. That percentage has increased from 45% in Church Mutual’s first survey in 2019. Meanwhile, only 27% of those surveyed feel their church or other organization is prepared for an armed intruder event.

So, how can your church help its members feel safer while attending worship services and other events? Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Take a long, hard look at your level of security.

Before you make any changes, it’s helpful to determine your starting point. Church Mutual offers a security self-assessment that gives churches an easy-to-follow checklist. Some of the most important things you can do to increase your security include:

  • Controlling access to your entrances during events
  • Partnering with a local law enforcement agency to identify security issues
  • Conducting background checks on all those who have assigned security responsibilities or security-sensitive functions, such as money handling
  • Creating a key control policy
  • Making sure your grounds are well lit.
  1. Determine your church’s approach to security.

When the Risk Radar Report asked respondents their thoughts on armed security, they had strong opinions. Of those surveyed, 56% felt armed security would be a good idea at a church if there has been a previous threat or incident, people in the congregation request it, or if the church is located in a high-crime area.

Your church must decide what level of risk it wants to assume before bringing on armed security guards. From a risk management standpoint, if a house of worship wishes to pursue armed security, it’s recommended to consider hiring local law enforcement officer or private contractor to provide these services. However, you want to make sure your contract specifies they assume  liability for their actions and that your organization is named as an additional insured on the contractor’s insurance policy.

The most risky option is assembling an armed, volunteer security team. It’s risky because your organization will generally bear responsibility and liability for the actions of the team. A significant amount of planning, training and management is required.

If you choose any armed security option, you must contact your insurance carrier to determine if you have adequate coverage.

  1. Conduct an armed intruder tabletop drill.

Tabletop drills are useful to test the plans and procedures you have put into place, without performing a full-scale emergency drill. Church Mutual provides an armed intruder tabletop drill worksheet you can use with your church. Think of this worksheet as a starting point, and adapt the drill according to your individual needs.

As you are planning the tabletop drill, work with church leaders to assemble a team of no more than 15 people. These people will gather together, read the drill scenario, then discuss how your church is best equipped to respond to such a scenario.

Don’t be concerned if your tabletop drill exposes holes in your church’s security. It’s much better to find gaps in your security now than after a tragic event!

  1. Look for warning signs of possible violence, particularly before hosting a big event.

While you can’t prevent everything that might happen at your church, you can lessen the likelihood of an armed intruder. You may be able to identify potential threats before they materialize by:

  • Monitoring social media — Sometimes, people who plan to attack a church with a weapon broadcast their intentions days or even weeks before the event. Pay close attention to all social media channels. You can even enter your church’s name in the channel’s search function to find posts that mention it.
  • Enabling anonymous reporting — Many would-be armed intruders tell one or two people about their plans beforehand. Your church could choose to create a web-based form that allows those people to warn the organization anonymously, which then gives you the opportunity to take precautionary measures.
  • Reviewing physical security measures — Assess key systems such as locks, security cameras, lighting, alarms, gates and doors. Everything should be fully functional before the event.

When you take the necessary steps to plan for a potential armed intruder event, you are showing your congregation that you take the threat very seriously. That will help everyone who is associated with your church feel safer.

Eric Spacek is assistant vice president — Risk Control at Church Mutual Insurance Company.


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