The horrific shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, that left nine people dead was a terrible reminder that bad things can happen at good places. Churches are often viewed as safe havens by congregation members, staff and volunteers, but church leaders should be aware that churches can be vulnerable to devastating violent acts, just like other businesses and organizations. Thankfully, active shooter situations are rare, but churches and other houses of worship should strongly consider preparing themselves for worst case scenarios.
Prepare to Prevent
The best way to address the risk of violence or other unfortunate acts is to be prepared. By thinking about possible situations or risks, and taking steps to minimize the likelihood of them occurring, you limit the risk of surprise and chaos when an incident happens. The following considerations may be helpful:
- Establish a Team – Develop a safety or risk management team that will be responsible for safety issues, and designate a point person for that team.
- Assess Your Facility – A security assessment by a professional can go a long way toward identifying the particular vulnerabilities of your church to criminal activity. Conduct an assessment in conjunction with local law enforcement, if possible, or a security professional.
- Create a Church Safety and Security Plan – Based on the results of the security assessment, develop a security plan that defines the roles of staff and volunteers with regard to safety and security, and details the prevention measures and responses to harmful situations that may arise.
- Establish a Communication Plan – In the case of a crisis, it is important to be able to communicate efficiently. The members of your safety or risk management team must be able to communicate with each other. In addition, create a plan of action for how your church will communicate during an event and decide how you will explain the situation to other congregation members, the public and media.
- Seek Training – Once your security plan is in place, make sure that all involved staff and volunteers are trained on their roles. Again, the assistance of local law enforcement or a security professional in training can be very helpful.
- In 2013, the federal government released a Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship that includes a section on addressing active shooter situations. Churches may wish to review this document as a guide.
Church Security Guards
Some churches have taken the step of utilizing security guards to enhance the safety of their facilities. Churches generally have three options to consider when deciding whether security guards are a good fit:
- Off-Duty Law Enforcement – These officers typically have superior training and experience dealing with disruptive, suspicious or potentially violent individuals. Churches that feel the need to employ security guards should strongly consider the use of off-duty law enforcement officers. Many congregations have such officers within their membership.
- Hired Security Guard Force – Another option is to hire a professional security guard service. Before doing so, check references and make sure you are clear on the guards’ backgrounds, training, and the role they will play. In addition, strongly consider a written agreement with the security agency, which includes hold harmless language in favor of the church, and have the church listed as an additional insured on the service’s liability insurance policies.
- Own Security Guard Force – The least preferable option is for the church to utilize its own security guard force, particularly if they are interested in having armed security. In this scenario, the church is responsible for running background checks, training and supervising these individuals. Generally, the church will be held liable for the acts of its security guards with no recourse against any other entity, and the church must make sure that it complies with state licensing and certification requirements. Churches are strongly encouraged to check with their legal advisor before undertaking to implement their own security guard force.
Reactions to a Violent Incident
Knowing what to do during a violent situation can help to keep those around you safe. Protecting those in the congregation should be your first priority during this kind of event. Also, by having a plan in place, you will feel less panicked and the situation will run more smoothly. For example, the following are things to consider in the event of a violent episode:
- Call 911 whenever it is safe to do so;
- If the intruder is within the building, remove everyone from the premises as quickly as it is safe to do so;
- If evacuation is not possible, implement lockdown procedures for areas of the building, such as youth or children’s areas, when it is appropriate to do so;
- If the intruder is outside the building, lock doors and close off areas to stop the intruder from entering the facility if possible;
- Act calmly and quickly to control panic situations; and
- Have a designated leader take charge and implement your crisis communication plan.
Although your church can never be completely ready for an act of violence, your facility can and should become better prepared for responding to criminal acts, as well as communicating during a crisis.