Attacks by armed intruders on houses of worship – including churches, synagogues and mosques – are on the rise. Numerous violent events in the news are a reminder of the critical importance of ensuring preparedness among your house of worship volunteers. Taking the time to educate those that work closely within your religious organization is time well spent.
Overcoming a difficult topic: Starting the discussion
Despite the importance of preparing for a violent attack of this kind, many religious leaders and organizational stakeholders find it a challenge to start conversations around this issue. It’s imperative, however, for leaders to overcome these difficulties, and not shy away from conversations about armed intruders and the necessary preparations.
“As Americans, we can’t cower in the face of the senseless hate that is anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was present and injured at the Chabad of Poway synagogue attack, said in a statement, according to CNN. “This horrific event must also raise alarm and concern for the safety of all places of worship.”
Connect with local law enforcement: Conduct a security vulnerability assessment
While you and your staff can readily identify certain areas of risk, it can also be invaluable to work with law enforcement. Reach out to local law enforcement to obtain information about the elements and vulnerabilities that could impact your organization. They also may be able to provide information about recent upticks in violence or threats affecting houses of worship in your area. Be sure to ask if they can conduct a security vulnerability assessment, which will help to identify security weaknesses that should be addressed. Following the assessment, you can craft a plan for your organization to help prioritize your efforts.
Identifying Threats and Reporting Options
Educating staff and volunteers about potential suspicious activity to look out for and providing options for reporting is a beneficial element for house of worship security. As noted in this Risk Reporter resource from Church Mutual, if leaders or a stakeholder see something specific, they should say something. Certain red-flag behaviors might not directly lead a person to violence, but awareness of these, as well as the ability to anonymously report them, could provide the opportunity for intervention.
Anonymous reporting tools could be low-tech options like a physical drop box available for individuals to submit written statements. Houses of worship leaders can also consider setting up an anonymous hotline or text line to encourage congregation members and those in the local community to report any behavioral inconsistencies or red flags.
It is of utmost importance to review any reports that are made and take necessary action.
Houses of worship leaders may also consider performing regular security sweeps of their building. These sweeps should include areas where regular worship services or activities are hosted, as well as the other rooms/areas on the property and the parking lot. Keeping an eye out for not only “red flag” behaviors, but also any suspicious vehicles or packages can help close any gaps identified during vulnerability assessments. If something unusual is noted, it should be reported immediately to leadership and action should be taken; including contacting law enforcement.
Creating a plan: Practice drill
In addition to educating your safety team on suspicious behavior, it’s also imperative for house of worship leaders to have a plan established in the event that an armed intruder attack does take place. This plan should outline elements like:
- Facility Design and Layout: Determine risk factors, average attendance, staffing needs, access controls, evacuation / lockdown capabilities, communication tools, nearby rally points, and more.
- Local Partnerships: Define how your organization will interact with local law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire departments, media, and community partners (such as emergency gathering places)
- Team Formation: Identify eligibility requirements to serve on the team such as outside experience, availability, physical requirements, mental / emotional state, clean background checks, and more.
- Training: Describe minimum training expectations including initial training, ongoing training, and topics to be covered.
- Standard Operating Procedures: State basic expectations for team members such as chain of command, sign-in procedures, communication, location assignments, patrolling, incident response, incident reporting, and more.
As mentioned above, once the plan has been established, it can be particularly beneficial for houses of worship leaders to run regular practice drills with their volunteers to ensure that they can assist in the event of an attack. While preparing for an event can be sensitive and difficult for your congregation, it’s imperative to have plans in place to help keep your people safe.
Check out our Armed Intruder Checklist for more details about ensuring readiness and security at your house of worship.
The information contained in these materials is intended solely to provide general guidance on topics that may be of interest to you. While we have made reasonable efforts to present accurate and reliable information, Church Mutual Insurance Company, S.I. disclaims all liability for any errors or omissions, or for any actions you take or fail to take based on these materials. The information provided may not apply to your particular facts or circumstances; therefore, you should seek professional advice prior to relying on any information that may be found in these materials.