Americans are fast learning that churches are particularly vulnerable to the actions of murderous criminal actors. Motivations for those actors may vary, and include robbery, domestic spillover, personal conflict, mental illness, political differences, and religious bias.
Interestingly enough, religious bias in the United States has most recently played a relatively minor role, which is not to be discounted because of the extreme amount of damage that can occur when a church is targeted by a heavily armed team of radicals.
Criminal acts committed by terrorists in houses of worship in other countries in the past have included use of improvised explosive devices, arson, small arms attacks, assassinations, kidnapping, and chemical and biologicals attacks.
It is my opinion that a mix of domestic spillover and/or personal conflict combined with long-term mental dysfunction is likely the largest cause of aggravated assault and murder within the walls of an American church facility at this time.
We now know that those who are most likely to do us harm are people within our own communities that, at this very moment, are nursing a grudge, completely bereft of conscience, and contemplating violent actions against others.
A reliable surveillance system is an important asset to any church, and nearly a must for larger churches. Note the radio, which allows the camera operator to quickly contact the protective team, provide a brief description of the situation observed and direct them accordingly to the area of concern.
Why do mass murders occur frequently in houses of worship? If part of the motivation of the criminal actor is to cause mass casualties in a short time, what better place to go where there may be anywhere from 25 to 4,000 persons, the vast majority of which are unarmed and incapable of defending themselves or their loved ones—and all largely enclosed in a structure in which there are limited exit points? Consider the following:
• Multiple persons have assembled at a single location on a published date.
• There is ready access into church facilities entrances typically manned by persons lacking the skills and tools needed to identify and/or deal with potential violent criminal actors.
• Typically, there are no restrictions to entering adjoining parking lots.
• It is not unusual to see visitors unknown to members of the congregation and church staff.
• Church volunteers, workers, and maintenance staff may not go through background checks.
• It is relatively easy much of the time to set improvised explosive devices or cause fires in critical areas, possibly unobserved.
• Most churches do not have a trained security team, or even a solo security officer.
• While greeters and staff may have been educated to observe and report unusual persons and anomalies, a lack of a workable intra-church communication system may result in a delay getting that information to key personnel.
• The majority of churches may lack the funds or even desire to field and train competent first responders. While there always may be one or more members of the congregation that is indeed skilled and capable, there are multiple variables in place that may prevent that person or persons from getting into a position where effective interception of a criminal actor is timely or even possible.
COORDINATED RESPONSE REQUIRED
It is simply not enough to own a pistol, have a carry license, and then rely solely on inspiration and faith to take on the enormous responsibility of being an armed first responder in a house of worship.
It is important to understand that an incompetent intervention may actually injure or cost the lives of innocent parties, financially ruin and subject the responder to criminal charges, and expose the church itself to lawsuits. Just because the church designated a person as their official responder or part of their new church security team does not imbue that same person with any special super-hero enforcement powers.
Smaller churches: It is believed that tens of thousands of churches have less than 100 attendees, including children, and operate off a limited budget. This makes using a paid protective team cost-prohibitive.
The safety of church attendees is enhanced when access to critical areas of the church are manned by trained staff and volunteers who have been made part of the overall security procedures for the church.
I recommend that any person contemplating going down the church security path to become familiar with their state’s use of force laws. They are likely to find that their ability to detain, arrest, or even touch another person while performing church security has not been expanded. In Texas, civilian arrest powers within a church setting are pretty much limited to Disorderly Conduct or Felony in View. The criminal penalty for false arrest or detention in Texas is punishable by fine and/or jail time.
As a licensed Texas Level 4 Personal Protection Officer/Instructor, I worked as Shift Lead on a mega-church security team for seven years, and completed over 100 hours of documented Executive Protection classwork plus countless continuous training hours. I can’t clearly articulate enough how important that specialized training is for team members who not only wish to protect themselves and the church family from the violent actions of others, but also stay out of jail or the courthouse.
DEVELOPING A CHURCH SECURITY PROGRAM
The challenge for many churches is assembling a working plan without ending up with something that is either overly complex and difficult for team members to understand and remember (or both) or is so simplistic and non-specific that team members may not know what to do when faced with a possible or actual threat, or end up leaving major holes in the coverage.
Churches interested in proactively developing a church security program should contemplate the following:
• Designate a security director.
• Develop a comprehensive security and emergency response plan.
• Select and train a protective team.
• Train staff and greeters to be additional eyes and ears.
• Test emergency response plans through regular exercises.
• Liaison with law enforcement and fire department.
• Select personnel or key volunteers via interviews and background checks.
• Develop a means of controlling access to entrances and exits.
• Employ a means of communication within the protective details and persons assigned to observe and report.
• Consider using electronic monitoring and surveillance equipment if the size of the facility exceeds the ability of the team to quickly observe and respond to possible threats.
• Be on the lookout for potential threat indicators, such as persons in crowds wearing unusually bulky clothes, unusual packages received in the mail, unattended briefcases, backpacks, boxes, suspicious vehicles near crowds, unauthorized access to HVAC equipment, and unexpected deliveries/maintenance vehicles.
Author shown teaching local protective team members how to perform a lateral neck restraint using the attacker’s shirt. Protective team members are more likely to have to deal with an attempted assault than a shooter.
Practicing non-diagnostic punch defense: A local church security team is shown practicing the initial part of a default response to a “sucker punch” by covering their head and driving their leading elbow into the attacker.
My recommendation for houses of worship interested in fielding a protective team is to first select a competent director and/or team leader, assemble a team, and then get the team properly trained.
Given a choice between quickly putting together a full team of persons with much enthusiasm, but little experience or starting with a small team of only a few mature persons with a known track record of reliability, decent firearm skills, and reputation for above average discernment and judgement, I would definitely go the latter route.
The team can increase in size over time through proper vetting. If your church is not big enough for a team and it is just one person, all is not lost. If even one person does his or her job properly then that particular house of worship should become significantly safer.
I particularly like the approach of the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management (NOCSSM) based out of Frisco, Texas and headed up by Chuck Chadwick. NOCSSM has broken church security into three layers of protection they call the Three Strands of Church Security.
THREE STRANDS OF CHURCH SECURITY
The first strand is Policies and Procedures, which specifically addresses security policies, emergency actions, shelter-in-place, lockdowns, visitors, staff ID and background checks, mail screening, offering procedures, and more. This should be done in writing to the extent possible without making compliance with procedure unduly confusing, complex or even overly lengthy.
The second layer is Team Players, which includes a carefully selected, vetted, and trained security team whose members can best be described as quiet, un-egotistical professionals. The security team needs to be familiar with use of force guidelines and fully understand what they can and can’t do when confronted with a variety of situations.
It is my personal belief that the team should dress in the same manner as the congregation, whether suit and tie or casual dress. In larger churches, I see no reason also not to have one or more armed and uniformed security officers or off-duty peace officers on the premises, which is at least some indication to persons contemplating a criminal act in the church or on church grounds that this particular house of worship may not be a soft target.
A member of a church protective team watches the parking lot next to the front entrance before, between and after services.
Use of quality radios and earbuds permits members of the team to not only remain in contact with other team members, but with church staff and volunteers who may have observed something of concern.
Included within this second strand, and no less important, are the trained staff, volunteers, and children-area workers as they are often the first persons to pick up on anomalies.
The third strand of church security is Systems and Equipment. Video surveillance is a wonderful tool that not only replaces boots on the ground, but can look directly at areas that are otherwise unobservable. Security systems and burglar alarms protect the premises because not all crime happens during regular church services.
Quality radios permits the protective team to communicate directly with each other as well as trained staff members and volunteers who may have seen something out of the ordinary, and further represent the quickest way for the person monitoring the security cameras to contact and direct the team in the event their presence is needed in a specific area.
NOCSSM is capable of providing security assessments, designing a church security program for any church regardless of size, providing church security-specific training, and in some instances even furnishing trained security personnel.
Shooting skill and active shooter response is a small part of a proper security program, and I am leery of shooting schools that have suddenly started offering church security classes unless their instructors have a legitimate history of participating in an organized church security detail (going to church armed does not count).
I believe that each member of the security team should be assigned a post before the service, during the service, between services, and after services. My opinion is based upon both academic study and personal experience.
It is preferable keep the team leader mobile, either directing the team or in a position to move and react in the event of possible pending or actual incident. I would assign at least two team members to the sanctuary during the service, one in the front and one in the back and at diagonal corners.
Taking a 25-yard headshot with moving people possibly in front of, around, and behind an active shooter is extremely risky.
Members of the church protective team should not only be aware of the challenges associated with closing in on an active shooter in a crowd, but routinely practicing doing exactly that. Role players in a weapon-free environment is also very useful.
In larger churches where there is a backstage behind the pulpit, I would want an officer there whose primary function is to watch and protect the minister. Some churches have an upper deck, so I like to assign a team member there (if team numbers permit). I definitely want a team member assigned to the children’s area, and it would give me considerable comfort to have an officer outside during the services as he or she may likely be the first to observe a heavily-armed person obviously intent on coming into the church.
I know of one church that has a person cruising the parking lot in an enclosed golf cart before, during, and after the services, and I think that is a great idea. Obviously if the team is not large enough to fill all those positions, then each individual church needs to assign a priority to a specific position and fill them accordingly.
I have served as a solo Level 4 Personal Protection Officer at the opening of a smaller satellite facility where I assessed the situation and then positioned myself where I could do the most good quickly in the area that contained the largest group of persons where an incident was most likely to happen.
IF THE WORST HAPPENS…
If forced to deal with an active shooter inside the church or even in the church parking lot, is each member of the team up to the task? Can everybody really make a 25-yard shot on a moving target in a crowd with a questionable backstop?
Modern handgun bullets zip right through sheetrock walls. If you ever trained with Louis Awerbuck and engaged his Mirage system using moving 3-D target, you know how easy it is to miss a five-yard headshot if Louis suddenly moved the target a mere six inches a micro-second before you broke the shot.
What if the shooter is wearing body armor? What if the congregation is running for their lives in all directions? What happens if one needs to get to the shooter as soon as possible, but is having to force his or her way “upstream” through a literal human stampede?
All is not lost in these scenarios, but forethought is required and proper responses must be learned under the guidance of qualified instructors, and then practiced over and over.
Church security is not glamorous. Normally nothing much happens, and after a certain length of time attention wanders and complacency threatens to manifest itself. Most incidents that the team will handle do not require gunplay, but that does not mean that they are not challenging.
Some team members will probably resign at some point, stating that the job simply was not worth the time required, the commitment to being present on a specific date at specific times, and the risk involved.
I just try to remember that there is always someone who will make the decision in advance that the lives and good health of the church family should be protected against those who wish them harm, and then train, practice, and wait for the day that evil comes to visit.
I always want to be that guy.
Steve Moses is a long-time defensive weapons and tactics instructor based out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area. He has provided close protection to state, national, and international politicians, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, and professional football players, and was Shift Lead on a large security detail at a mega-church with satellite campuses for seven years. Steve is currently co-owner and Director of Training for Palisade Training Group, LLC (www.ptgtrainingllc.com)
NATIONAL ORGANIZATION OF CHURCH SECURITY AND SAFETY MANAGEMENT