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Minority communities have long grappled with threats to their houses of worship and religious communities. But, for most Americans, until now the idea of a “church safety committee” seemed totally absurd.
As Michael Masters, National Director and CEO of Secure Community Network, said following the October 2018 shooting targeting members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh: “We will feel safer if we come together and work together.”
But many in law enforcement are finding it remarkably difficult to have these important conversations with the religious groups, churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and community centers in their area.
Three Obstacles Preventing Organizations from Addressing “Church Safety”
There are three key obstacles that prevent religious communities from engaging with law enforcement to discuss safety and security:
- Complacency—Religious organizations are often resistant to change. And while many might see a need to address safety, there are often deep-seated disagreements about how to do so (and what measures are unacceptable). This delays critical conversations and necessary change.
- Compassion vs. Safety—Many groups, from schools to city councils to religious organizations, mistakenly believe there is a fundamental incompatibility between being open and welcoming and staying safe. They believe they must choose one or the other. Additionally, almost every religious community has a mandate to “welcome the stranger.” This almost invariably translates into poor building management: too many groups sharing too few spaces with too little communication, terrible key management, failing to lock doors, unsecured windows, and so on.
- Money & Budgets—Religious organizations almost always have huge demands on their very small pool of resources; few have budgeted for security of any sort.
Additionally, many religious communities and organizations include members who are suspicious of law enforcement. In some communities, this may be the result of lived experience (either here in the US, or in their nations of origin). In other communities, this distrust stems from their work in social justice movements, or as a simple practicality of often lending aid to at-risk populations who are themselves suspicious of law enforcement.
Starting A Church Security Conversation
There are many strategies for approaching a religious community about safety. These three steps can help you get started.
STEP 1. Start with Security Staff
If the organization has any sort of security staff—from a paid guard to a congregational “safety officer”—start with that person. If there is no such role, reach out to lay leadership, (president of the congregational board, deacons, etc.) a facilities manager or head of maintenance. These folks often have an easier time balancing ideological beliefs with practical safety and facility concerns. They can most easily answer practical questions about key control protocols, alarm systems, and fire suppression.
STEP 2. Focus on Basic Safety
Many religious communities have conflicting emotions about law enforcement, gun ownership, the justice system, or armed guards. But fire safety and first-aid remain uncontroversial. Offering to have fire extinguishers and smoke detectors checked (and, if need be, serviced) can be an excellent place to start a conversation about overall security and preparedness. You can also suggest connecting the group with free first-aid training (like hands-only CPR or Stop the Bleed).
STEP 3. Offer a Security Assessment
Many agencies (and even private firms) will complete free security assessments for houses of worship and schools. Most faith-based organizations are unaware of this. If no agencies in your area offer such a program, the SHOW app offered by the National Institute of Justice can get you started with your own assessments, and can also help you develop custom church security plans.
STEP 4. Offer Resources
Once you have had an initial conversation about safety and offered a security walkthrough or training event, you can offer additional resources to consider. Point them toward any public grants available for security enhancements. This will help address tight budgets and worries about security spending.
Increasing Church Security With Better Access Control
Focusing on access control is a great way to increase security while skirting hot-button issues (i.e., guns, uniformed officers, etc.). Talking about enhancing access control also creates an opportunity to address any worries about making a congregation feel less welcoming.
Following the November 2018 murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue, Jennifer Levin-Tavares (executive director of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, Florida) spoke with Nicole Javorsky for CityLab. Levin-Tavares noted that, “If you look at the purpose of a synagogue, it’s to have a sense of community. That necessarily means warmth and people feeling at home. And in order for people to feel at home, they have to feel safe and secure.” Javorsky further noted that “Many synagogues have separate entrances for the school, offices, and prayer spaces. [Architect Mark] Levin said one way to combine the goal of fostering a welcoming community and increasing security is to have only one entrance.” This connects the building’s many users and makes it easy for organizations to have greeters in place to meet newcomers.
Helping Religious Organizations Address Budget Concerns
Bob Hoshaw is a Sales Representative for TSS, and works with houses of worship to improve their physical security. In Bob’s experience, “When I tell them a door is going to cost $3000 to $4000, I usually don’t hear back from them.”
TSS CEO Jim Richards agrees: The communities that take action to improve safety and security are the ones that have gotten past the money obstacle: “We’ve had an uptick [in inquiries] since the beginning of this year, especially out on the East Coast. It doesn’t seem to be in response to any specific threat or news item, but more a matter of these communities wanting to take advantage of funding available to them at the state or federal level.” Preparing your security contacts to understand what church security costs—and the fact that there is public money available to help cover those costs—will make your life much easier.
Resources for Communities Struggling to Address Church Safety
Jewish communities are often ahead of the curve in thinking about (and addressing) safety and security. As Gary Sikorski, Director of Community-wide Security for the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, has often noted “[Jewish communities] are already at a high level of awareness and a high level of vigilance.”
As such, materials prepared by Jewish communities may prove helpful in getting other faith-based organizations in your community to take a serious look at their congregational safety and security.
Of specific interest is this presentation on applying for federal grant money to cover the cost of security improvements to religious communities (which includes a link to a state-by-state list of government officials to contact with inquiries about Homeland Security grant funds).