SECURITY IN PLACES OF WORSHIP

By Bill Savage

On Sunday March 8, 2009, violence erupted in Marysville, Illinois, in a Baptist church. A shooter opened fire on pastor Fred Winters, who was standing in the pulpit, and stabbed two church members.

December 2007, a gunman opened fire at a Colorado church and missionary training center, killing five people and wounding numerous other worshippers. Several months earlier, a gunman opened fire in a Missouri church during Sunday services, killing three people, including the pastor, and wounding three others.

A vandal broke into a New York Synagogue that was under construction and caused $7,000 worth of damage, including broken doors, windows and restroom fixtures. Violence at places of worship is increasing at an alarming rate.

ISSUE:

What is behind this increase in crime at places of worship, and what are some effective ways to secure a church or synagogue?

SOLUTION:

A quick search of news resources shows that houses of worship are frequent targets for criminals from petty thieves to those wishing harm to children. Churches, synagogues and mosques typically have valuable A/V equipment to use as part of their worship experience; some have expensive furnishings and fixtures and cash from offerings on site. Many places of worship run schools or daycare centers with children on the grounds, and differing belief systems also can result in hate crimes aimed at a particular religion or congregation.

Securing a house of worship involves special challenges. Security cannot have an intrusive presence, making the use of metal detectors or routine searches impossible. All are welcome policies in most denominations encourage community involvement, making it easy for criminals to gain access to church facilities. And with many houses of worship hosting community meetings, election polls and other non-church activities, there may be many unknown people passing through the facilities each week. To ask any church to change these policies would cut to the core of its existence.

But it is possible to secure a sanctuary and surrounding ground in a discreet manner. The first step should be the formation of a security committee composed of worship leaders, staff and members of the congregation. This group should look for a security systems integrator with proven experience in helping protect houses of worship that understands the importance of creating a welcoming environment that is both safe and secure. A risk assessment of the location likely will result in the recommendation of several electronic security systems that go beyond standard intrusion detection.

Access Control System. If an employee or congregant loses a standard metal key, it may be wise to undergo the expense of rekeying all the locks. But it takes only seconds on a computer to deactivate a lost access credential. Also, an access system provides a record of who accesses a controlled door and when. That information may be useful in determining when and how an offense occurred. Access controls also can be programmed for specific access at times, allowing trusted individuals within the congregation to access facilities.

Video Surveillance Cameras. These can be positioned discreetly throughout the complex, inside and out, and have the ability to serve as a deterrent to criminal activity. With a DVR, law enforcement can review events if an offense occurs. Cameras placed in daycare areas and classrooms allow caregivers and teachers the ability to check on children remotely, and the more caring eyes watching children, the better.

Call Boxes. Call boxes throughout the facility, especially in parking lots and garages, can provide an instant link to facility security staff or local law enforcement in an emergency. They also can serve to summon assistance for lost children or medical needs.

Communication System. An intercom or telephone-based communication system can link to offices, entrances, and daycare and/or school facilities. There are affordable systems that come with cameras, monitors and door release systems that can be used by staff in areas where remote access is

ISSUE:

Are there any low-tech ways to supplement a place of worship’s security system?

SOLUTION:

While these systems are not inexpensive, lower costs and higher performance are improving the value of systems to a facility’s operation all the time. A good security integrator also should be able to suggest some low-technology solutions such as lighting, fencing and landscape modifications to further improve security. Members of the congregation also should be educated about common-sense practices such as locking car doors, keeping valuables out of site and identifying the nearest exit for use in an emergency. With violence and criminal activity increasing everywhere, including the places where people worship, awareness and attention to one’s surrounding are critical.

Working with an experienced systems integrator, it is possible to design a cost-effective security system that can greatly enhance security and safety without major influence on the daily activities of a house of worship.

Bill Savage is the president of Security Control Systems, Inc., with offices in Houston, Dallas, Austin, Texas, and New Mexico. Savage is also a founder, past president and current member of Security-Net, an international network of 24 leading independent systems integrators.