Security in Design for Houses of Worship

By John Kleberg and Patrick Maughan

While it is essential to be prepared for and responsive to contemporary issues associated with deadly firearm incidents in houses of worship, such incidents are only part of daily concerns related to safety and security. In the 2017 National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) report for churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, a total of 17,660 incidents were reported, over 30% of which were theft offenses. Such thefts are most common and often threaten our religious heritage.

That means in addition to preparing for crisis situations, pastors need to consider how best to protect their churches from non-emergency risks.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) has been around for decades. There is even a guidebook on the subject from the National Crime Prevention Council. Designers, architects, planners and crime prevention specialists as well as law enforcement officers have recognized and appreciated the value of the design principles involved in CPTED.

Physical space design and the psychological impressions such design elements may impart to people approaching and using a space are certainly critical to creating a space that is safe and secure for the people using it. We all want to be safe in our physical environment, but we also want to feel safe. We have all been to areas that overtly make us feel uncomfortable, but we may not have reflected on what is causing this perception.

According to the guidebook, the concept of CPTED includes four things: natural surveillance, natural access control, territorial reinforcement and maintenance and management.

While many houses of worship may have been built years, decades or even centuries before these concepts — or the issues they are intended to address where identified — some may still employ them. Alternatively, they may be enhanced with modest improvements to make such places safer for worshipers and visitors. Contemporary issues of shootings, theft or malicious damage to religious sites leave us with the need to explore concepts and applications of crime prevention strategies — not only protect the space but also those who attend and worship there.

Natural surveillance revolves around the general idea that criminals do not want to be seen. When the principles of natural surveillance are successfully implemented, spaces are designed with clear lines of site to allow the normal users of the space to observe their environment. Tools to assist with “designing in” natural surveillance include proper and effective use of lighting, pruning of overgrown landscaping and placement of activities so they are more likely to be observed by everyday users.

A simple example of natural surveillance would be placing a parking area in a location so that church employees would be able to observe the lot from work areas. If they happened to glance outside and see a stranger circling cars, that would look unusual to them, and they would be likely to request help and be observant if a break-in occurred.

The principle of natural access control utilizes effective signage, way finding and locking and unlocking appropriate doors to direct pedestrian traffic into the desired entry and exit from the property. If effective natural access control is working, users of the space clearly know where they are going. If one now sees someone trying to enter from a different area, they could be lost or looking for an entry where they may not be noticed.

Territorial reinforcement as a CPTED element helps to create a sense of ownership in the environment and foster a sense of protecting the territory they “own.” Some tools to foster territoriality include proper and timely maintenance and graffiti removal to show that people care for their own spaces and do not tolerate abuse. Decorative or structural elements also help to define that one has left public property and is now on private (or semi-private) property. It’s the gated community concept, without the gate.

While conceptually simple, and one might say sound, such principles may not be applied when houses of worship are designed or in daily use. The normal users of the facility park in the same area, enter the same door and know exactly where to move to navigate the property. A new visitor, however, may be confused by a myriad of parking spaces and various entrances. The front door to the house of worship may have a grand entryway, but that entrance may not be desirable if the parking is remotely located.

In addition, how much thought has been given to the access and egress for the users of the space who are not attending a service? Staff should ask themselves: Are these special or outreach activities compatible with this use of space? Do you want high school age organizations meeting near a senior citizen book club or Bible study? Or is an AA organization meeting at a time or location that interacts with the Scout Troop? You should ask questions like these examples regarding inherent conflicts of interest in scheduling space.

Even if various users of the space are all attending compatible functions, is their ingress and egress able to occur without exposing the entire facility to unwanted or unsafe meandering? If they are meeting after dark, has the interior and exterior lighting been maintained adequately to ensure the safety, or has it been shut down to save energy after hours? Is the exterior lighting adequate to come and go from after-hour parking spaces? These are important factors to take into consideration.

CPTED is not a hard and fast “do ‘X’ and don’t do ‘Y’” discipline. Applying the principles, however, should most certainly contribute to a safer and more secure worship site and experience.


John Kleberg is the retired assistant vice president of Ohio State University. He has years of security, public safety and police experience in higher education. He is co-author of “Theft: A Threat to Religious Heritage,” published in the December 2016 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin and the Art Theft Journal as well as numerous articles and texts. He has served on his church council and as a congregational officer.

Patrick Maughan has extensive public safety experience, including fire prevention, emergency medical services, campus security, alarm monitoring control center, museum security, risk assessment and emergency management.

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