NEWS

Smaller Churches Lack Security, Experts Say

By Matthew Harwood

Experts say smaller churches generally lack security plans that could help identify an attacker beforehand or minimize the damage of an attack, the Associated Press reports.

The new emphasis comes after the Reverand Fred Winters was gunned down Sunday morning in Maryville, Illinois, while saying mass. The shooter, 27-year-old Jeff Sedlacek, has been charged with Winters' murder as well as aggravated assault for stab wounds inflicted on two parishoners who subdued him after the shooting.

The fact that the First Baptist Church had initiated a security and emergency plan six months before the shooting shouldn't dissuade other churches from planning ahead, the church's associate pastor Mark Jones told the AP.

Televangelist churches and megachurches with attendance levels around 5,000, however, generally have coordinated security plans and have hired undercover security guards to protect high-profile preachers, according to Dave Travis, managing director of the Leadership Network,  which helps church leaders grow their churches.

Jeffrey Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network, says churches are "soft targets." A survey conducted last year after a church shooting in Knoxville, Tennesee, showed that 75 percent of churches do not have a security plan, while polling of 250 churches conducted by his organization showed a third have already experienced a security incident this year.

The Christian Security Network advises churches take an all-hazards approach to their security plan, accounting for everything from low-level crime to natural disasters.

And it's not only Christian houses of worship that are taking precautions.

Because of anti-semiticism and attacks in Israel, Jewish organizations have long been security conscious.

"You don't want iron gates and armed guards, but houses of worship do need to train staff, congregants and ushers to identify and respond to such threats as an emotionally disturbed person," said Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network (SCN), a Jewish security organization.

According to Security Management's Laura Spadanuta last April, SCN has been an innovative leader in securing Jewish houses of worship through public-private partnerships.

The group receives sensitive information on threats to the Jewish community around-the-clock, which it then disseminates to its members. Goldenberg adds that the SCN is the first nongovernmental organization to have a memorandum of understanding with the New York City Police Department.

The group is also working with the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate its house of worship training. The most important step a house of worship can take is to train its staff to handle threatening situations and to ensure that they are able to operate any security equipment the building has, says Goldenberg, who was part of a south Florida undercover strike force for several years.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights organization, has also published security guidelines for mosques and worshippers because of an increase in assaults after 9-11. (Click here for CAIR-Pennsylvania's security guide.)

For more on protecting houses of worship, see ASIS International's "Securing Houses of Worship."

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