Finding A Balance
Recent events spark talk of security on church campuses.
- By Jessica Davis
- January 01, 2018
The headlines have been horrifying recently. It seems like every
other week there is another shooting to break the spirits of
America all over again.
Three of the five deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S.
history have taken place in the last 10 years on the campus of
a church or school. Just a few months ago, a shooting in Sutherland
Springs, Texas, made headlines when it broke the top five mass shootings,
taking place at a small Baptist church just outside of San Antonio.
The shooting took place on the campus of First Baptist Church on a
Sunday during the 11 a.m. service. The gunman shot at the outside of
the building, walked inside and continued to fire into the pews of the
sanctuary, killing 26 people and injuring 20 more. The victims included
children as young as 18 months old.
The shooting in Sutherland Springs is the latest of at least three
church campus shootings in the past three years. In June 2015, a gunman
shot and killed nine church members during a prayer service at
the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. In September 2017, a
gunman stormed the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch,
Tenn., fatally shooting a woman in the parking lot before entering the
church sanctuary, shooting and wounding six people.
It is apparent that attacks on relatively unprotected sites, or soft targets,
like places of worship are increasing. Many church campuses
across the country are beginning to question the security measures
they implement on their own campuses.
“It is absolutely a wake-up call regardless of where you are in security
planning. Security needs to be part of every church’s function, whether
it’s a church of 50 or 21,000, like Redemption,” said Travis Hayes, CFO
of Redemption Church in Greenville, S.C.
Redemption started reevaluating its security policy and protocol in
the wake of the 2015 Charleston church shooting. At that time, the
church decided to install 166 cameras across its campus, as well as
deploy armed and unarmed guards on the premises during times of
high traffic, like Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. Redemption
also chose to work closely with Greenville Police and the Greenville
County Sheriff ’s Office to quickly and easily report suspicious activity.
There’s a fine line when it comes to securing church campuses. The
congregation wants the campus and facility to be open and inviting to
anyone who decides to worship there, but Hayes believes that the church
as a responsibility to protect those coming to their campuses to worship.
“I think there is a fine balance in having an armed security officer at
every corner versus being an open-doors, you-come facility,” Hayes
said. “But I think you can find that balance.”
THE FINE LINE
For Jim McGuffey, Antiterrorism Assistance Independent Instructor
for A.C.E. Security Consultants, the balance for every church is different,
but there are a few things that each church can do to give leaders
and congregants peace of mind.
“There are many policies and procedures that can be implemented
that don’t cost money or create undue concern to protect staff and
house of worship members,” McGuffey said. “If leadership communicates
safety and security in a professional and well-thought-out process,
it can be done without increasing fear.”
Churches all over the country are trying to do just that. For example,
in Southwest Florida, Fort Myers’ Riverside Church added concrete
barricades to the front of the building, near its entrance, as a response
to the deadly incident in South Texas. The church believed the barriers
were necessary to prevent any kind of vehicle attack at the church but
that they are subtle enough to look built into the architecture of the
building instead of coming off as a glaring security measure.
In Central Texas, church campuses are deciding to ban concealed
carry permit holders from bringing their guns into sanctuaries. For
Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, the Sutherland Springs shooting
further cemented their decision to ban guns from their sanctuary.
In addition to the ban, they’ve also created volunteer security teams
and work closely with the Austin Police Department to educate their
members about safety and security.
RESPONSIBILITY TO SECURE
According to McGuffey, the responsibility falls on the campus of worship
to keep its members and staff safe when they are on the premises.
That starts with a little education.
“Education in this area can occur with the pastor providing brief
announcements,” McGuffey said. “Sunday school teachers can provide
educational messages, pamphlets can be distributed, church websites
can share educational videos and messages and special events can be
shared for leaders to attend.”
To be ready for specific emergencies, McGuffey suggests church
campuses create evacuation plans for active shooter events, earthquakes
and others loss events.
“If done correctly, members will appreciate the concern leadership
has for safety,” McGuffey said.
FAITH BASED AND NEIGHBORHOOD PARTNERSHIPS
To help church campuses have a well-rounded education on security
and safety, the Trump Administration is strengthening their efforts to
train places of worship on emergency security protocols.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Faith Based and
Neighborhood Partnerships began to focus on security during the
Obama Administration after the Sandy Hook Elementary School
shooting in 2012, developing active shooter trainings for schools and
houses of worship.
Jamie Johnson, the office’s director, said that recently they have seen
“an increased level of concern” from “every faith tradition” when it
comes to security.
“This is a wing of American evangelicalism that is deeply hurting
right now,” Johnson said. “We are going to be a whole lot busier in the
months and years to come when it comes to safety and security for
houses of worship. This issue will now come to the forefront of the religious conversation in America.”
Earlier this year, Texas, where the Sutherland Springs shooting took
place, had their own discussion about security in church campuses and
other houses of worship. Texas Senate Bill 2065, which went into effect
Sept. 1, includes language that allows volunteers to provide security at
places of worship and be exempt from the requirements of the Private
Security Act. The goal was to make it easier for churches and other
places of worship to form volunteer security teams, as the legislation
waives state requirements on training, licensing, insurance and background
checks for these teams, making them a more viable option.
LOOKING TOWARD A MORE SECURE FUTURE
The reality is that security at churches is always evolving. Most church
campuses do have procedures and policies in place for emergency situations,
but with each violent incident that happens at houses of worship,
their security measures change.
With each incident, church leadership is able to evaluate their own
procedures and potentially find holes in their own security.
Today, First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs acts as a memorial
site for the 26 people who passed away during a church service,
which used to be thought of as one of the safest gatherings in the
world. Let’s work together to prevent any more
violent incidents surrounding some of our most
sacred locations in the country.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.