Helping Churches Feel Safe
By Royce Stephens
Recent headlines and incidents nationwide have demonstrated that church attacks are on the rise.1 Definitions and data in statistics vary greatly depending on what entity provides them; however, it is undeniable that violence against houses of worship is increasing in frequency and intensity — one source estimates 480 incidents occur in the United States each year.2
Once an atmosphere of safety, churches have become one of uncertainty. Increasingly, church members consult police departments for their security needs. Law enforcement professionals must provide as much help as possible to these generally vulnerable populations.
A firm grasp on the community’s religious makeup is important. Are any specific groups traditionally targeted? Is anyone known to be aggressive toward a particular affiliation? Have demonstrations concerning faith-based issues increased? Can a local fusion or information center provide current trends or intelligence?
Every house of worship needs a champion — someone who is passionate, willing to take the lead, and capable of executing an idea or program. This person should serve as the church’s point of contact. They could be an active or retired police officer, someone with military or security experience, or simply a congregant willing to learn what needs to be done and organize other members.
A thorough evaluation of the physical security of a church’s facilities is critical. Although many attacks happen outside, the most damage usually occurs after an assailant gets inside a building.
Does the building have crash-barred doors to limit ingress but maximize egress? Is there a schedule for locking doors during service? Does the church have personnel, such as door greeters, ushers, or hall monitors, who could facilitate access and lock entrances? Is there video surveillance on the premises?
The type of security a church needs or wants highly depends on its location, size, and/or budget. Subject to prevailing state laws, most houses of worship seek some form of armed security, which usually comes down to professionals, licensed volunteers, or unlicensed volunteers.
The church can contract licensed, armed professionals or off-duty police officers outside the congregation to provide security. The hourly rate for an armed guard averages $20 to $100 per hour, depending on location, experience, and training.3 The Stillwater, Oklahoma, Police Department charges $50 per hour for an off-duty police officer to provide site security.
Church members can volunteer to become state-certified, armed security officers. Certifications and requirements vary widely by state.
In Oklahoma, armed security guards must be state-licensed. To obtain the 3-year license, they must complete three phases of training totaling 72 initial hours with an annual 8-hour continuing education requirement. Licensed security officers are also required to pass firearms and phase-training proficiency tests.
“The type of security a church needs or wants highly depends on its location, size, and/or budget.”
Training is mainly done through the Oklahoma vocational-technical education system or private training companies at the individual’s expense. The costs to complete the requirements range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
For states that have concealed carry permits or constitutional carry provisions and allow individuals to have firearms inside a church, this is the least expensive, most flexible, and quickest way to provide armed safety for a congregation. The church identifies faithful members who agree to be trained in-house and appropriately armed.
A police department should not assist with this type of training but simply mention the option.
Regardless of the type of security chosen, developing an emergency plan is imperative. The plan will depend on the facility’s specifications and available team members. Considerations include accessible entrances and exits, pertinent service times, locations of ministries, layout of classrooms and the sanctuary, demographics of the congregation, number of visitors, and parking lot size.
The basics of any emergency plan will consist of identifying and positioning security and/or safety team members in strategic locations to intercept and stop a subject who intends to inflict harm on the church.
Ideally, all points of egress at the sanctuary or main worship space would have someone positioned close by to block the assailant. Church leaders are often targets, so it would be wise to station a safety team member near them and their families. Numerous acts of violence at churches occur in parking lots, Sunday school classrooms, nurseries, activities buildings, fellowship halls, and gymnasiums.
“ … [A] well-thought-out emergency plan can prepare everyone for the worst and mitigate casualties.”
There are many schools of thought regarding what the congregation should do in the event of an attack. In a chaotic moment, how a person should react and what they actually do is probably very different. However, a well-thought-out emergency plan can prepare everyone for the worst and mitigate casualties.
All things being equal, the best option is to teach churchgoers to get on the ground during an attack; the armed security team will then employ its training and take appropriate action.
An emergency plan will not be effective without consistent training. Armed security will need to be proficient in shooting a firearm at distances pertinent to the facility. Additionally, they should be experts on the church’s layout as well as the people and expectations of the congregation.
The church itself should also be prepared in case of an attack. Annually, pastors can take a portion of an evening service to run through practical scenarios so everyone clearly understands their responsibilities and expectations.
This article does not provide an exhaustive list of what should be considered in a safety plan for a house of worship; rather, it offers information for agencies to share with local congregations seeking security assistance or advice.
An experienced and knowledgeable officer can work with a church to help assess its physical security needs, develop an emergency plan, and discuss any related concerns. No matter how or where someone may worship, it is law enforcement’s duty to help them feel secure while they exercise this right.
“An experienced and knowledgeable officer can work with a church to help assess its physical security needs, develop an emergency plan, and discuss any related concerns.”
Captain Stephens serves with the Stillwater, Oklahoma, Police Department and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 281. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 “Serious Violence at Places of Worship in the U.S. — Looking at the Numbers,” DCG Articles, Dolan Consulting Group, September 9, 2019, https://www.dolanconsultinggroup.com/news/serious-violence-at-places-of-worship-in-the-u-s-looking-at-the-numbers/.
3 “How Much Does a Security Guard Cost,” Cost Estimates, Thumbtack, February 13, 2021, https://www.thumbtack.com/p/security-guards-cost.