Recent events where churches have been the scene of an active shooter have riveted the nation. Now, many houses of worship are seeking help from their local law enforcement agencies to guide and protect them. Every law enforcement agency’s crime prevention programs should reach out and assist these houses. It seems odd to sit down and speak of “hardening the target” with a church, but we must prepare for the possibility and train for the probability.

Why are houses of worship so vulnerable?

First, they are built for peace and not designed for safety. If you look at the service population or customer base of today’s churches, you will find several glaring obstacles. Many houses of worship host outreaches for substance abuse, marriage/family counseling services, etc., all of which opens up the door for problematic encounters. Public events are open to the non-believers and non-members as well—nobody checks your membership card when you enter.

Second, hosting public meetings can often open up the doors to unstable people. Other semi-public events such as scouting, food shelters and playgrounds all bring additional issues into play. In my experience, most churches are naive of trespassers. They should understand this legal issue, for they may have some congregants who are going through a divorce, in the midst of a custody battle or even protection from abuse orders. I do not encourage the leadership to “rumor monger” but to have knowledge of potential volatile issues within their flock.

Traditionally, there are always higher or special risks involved protecting rural African-American churches, Jewish synagogues and mosques. Sometimes, they target these properties for avenging ideas or a scapegoat mentality. The traditional threats are built around their physical assets, financial resources and iconic representation for those who hate. Add to this, they are open to the public, rarely screening attendees. Many houses of worship advertise their hours and events and some even have a prominent social media presence. All of this is more than likely being handled by untrained volunteers—what possibly could go wrong?

Money makes for an easy target

The mere presence of money can complicate matters. First of all, never underestimate the possibility of embezzlement. It is easy to get, to dispose of and is not traceable. Most churches do not have a money handling procedure. Money handling should be a process from donation to the audit. Sadly, this is not done until something bad occurs. The following forensic audit and its recommendations will dictate changes. Most churches have not vetted their financial teams or have secondary checks in place. Trusting the staff is not a successful plan. I remind the pastors and leaders to KYP—Know Your People (congregation and staff) and apply your insights. In one case, no one doubted the dear sweet lady in the front office. Then the shortage of monies was found, and you know the rest of the story. There should always be secondary checks and balances to ensure this process. Accounting has three-way checks for bookkeeping—it works.

Many religious institutions now are using checking account drafts, credit cards, PayPal and other means of safer donations. These systems also help track the donations for the income tax preparation. The big takeaway is less cash and checks to handle at the church office, the safer the process. Then the deposit procedures need to be reviewed. Does the deposit go to the bank that day in the drop box or is it kept on premises in a safe? Never, ever let somebody take the money home. The procedure must be one that is agreed upon and followed to ensure the integrity of the process.

The best question for the leadership is “Do you know of every account that is going on within your church?” This includes love offerings, building funds, overseas mission trips, kitchen funds and even the vending machines. Who gets the money and where does it go?

Think about building security

Church leaders need to rethink how they manage their churches and its non-traditional uses. The key questions I ask when performing a vulnerability assessment are:

How many people have access to your building (key control)?
What access management do you currently use?
Do you have missing keys or key cards, and when was the last key audit?
Do you know how many different meetings/events are going on at any given time on your property?
Are there current user agreements and insurance coverages from all of these organizations?
Do you have building security policy for closing up, shutting down and securing for the night?
How are your church records stored, backed-up and secured?
In most states church birth, marriage and death records are accepted as legal documents. These are more than dusty books to many folks.
Are there safeguards on your relics, alterware and other religious objects?
What about an inventory of your high value items – musical instruments, public address, audio/visual equipment and office machines?

There is more to it than opening the doors and passing the plate. Volunteer staff needs to step up to the new demands to ensure safety.

The main stay of crime prevention such as exterior lighting is often compromised due to budgetary reasons. If the church is closed for a few days, some cut off the perimeter lights to save money, but that’s never a solid plan. Additionally, a lighting survey of the premises is not a one-time adventure. Whenever church staff conducts a premises’ survey, perform it several times. I recommend one in the summer and one in the winter. The canopy of the trees and most ornamentals will be gone in winter, which will allow more lighting. Always perform in the day and night models as well. Trees grow and limbs with foliage will obscure views—check camera views frequently as well.

Should a house of worship have a camera system, they need to discuss who will be overseeing it and maintaining the integrity of the footage. Who is allowed to see, adjust, edit and delete needs to be formalized in policy. How long before the disc overwrites and so forth? It should be similar to a business or school—no need to reinvent the wheel. Rather, seek out best practices. Outside, look at sight lines that allow viewing the property—no hidden spots. The playgrounds and athletic areas for children should be free of obstructions, to allow all to observe and safeguard the children’s activities.

Create proactive strategies

A major question to ask a church’s leadership is what their overseers’ recommendations might be. What does the conference, diocese or administrative entities that are over this church recommend on certain topics? Should this be an independent or stand-alone house of worship, there may be no guidance. Topics such as overseeing childcare and Sunday school should be discussed. Who is allowed around the children? In some states, childcare providers (even in some religious organizations) have to be licensed or vetted in some way to protect the children—leadership must check state requirements.

Some leadership bodies have written directives on firearms on the grounds. Some take the path of omission and pray for the best outcome. Some hire armed security or off-duty law enforcement officers. Again, educate your churches on your state’s firearms laws, concealed weapons laws (CCW) and laws about this. Oftentimes, the insurance carriers will weigh-in on this area as well.

These should be a blend and balance of policy and procedures coupled with the internal duties and responsibilities of paid and volunteer staff. The people I address first (and probably demand the most from) are the ushers. They are the ‘gatekeepers’ of the church. Most often, this can be a relaxed and easy volunteer job. My recommendation for the usher team is before every service that they have a meeting determining everyone’s role for the day. I use a medical emergency as an example in training. One will go call 911 and start emergency response. The next usher is to go outside, clear the pathway and to wait for the ambulance and get them in the correct door. The other ushers are to have gone for the first aid kit and AED (if you have one) and start first aid. Before you even start this training, walk through the church and find the fire extinguishers, first aid kits (inspect them for proper stock), AED (if they have one) and check all exit doors. I always recommend that churches should offer first aid, CPR and, for that matter, portable fire extinguisher training for their volunteers and congregation.

Several churches have their usher team make frequent foot patrols about the building to observe and monitor visitors. Should someone attempt to enter who is not of the church, I ask the ushers to look them in the eye and greet them. Of course, most places do have “greeters” but this is not their job—greeters are stationed there before service. Once the show begins, the ushers are on duty. We all know that once somebody feels that they have been identified, their plan is compromised. You shook their hand and asked their name; their anonymity is gone and increases their chances of their deed being foiled. I encourage them to become professional witnesses, pay attention to all and gather up the information should it be needed.

The minister, pastor or leader up front must know their responsibilities as well. Should they observe something that needs attention, a medical emergency or disruption, do they have a signal or code word to put the action plan in place? The ushers are probably outside in the vestibule, so what puts the plan into action? This is something that needs to be determined as well. The Knowing Your People part—are there EMTs, nurses, police officers in attendance at this service who can assist?

This entire process can be overwhelming for most churches. Again, this is a place where you attend for peace. Now, it is a place where we have to “harden the target.” If you had to enter the fight of your life tomorrow, what would you do today to prepare for it? This question usually makes leadership understand the concepts. The truth is that many churches now want to prepare for the active shooter due to recent horrific attacks, but most will have other issues or criminal events that are more commonplace to houses of worship. If it is predictable then there is a hope it is preventable.

By Bill Harvey |

About the Author
Bill Harvey served for more than 23 years with the Savannah Police Department (Ga.). He served as chief of police of the Lebanon City Police Department (Pa.) for more than seven years and is now the chief of police for the Ephrata Police Department (Pa.).