Security professional Jeff Hawkins discusses the under-reported nature of crimes directed at churches nationwide, why George Tiller's murder could have been prevented, and how all houses of worship can protect themselves against crime and violence.
Jeff Hawkins is the executive director of the Christian Security Network , which helps churches become safer and more secure in a dangerous world. He is a senior public safety/security professional with almost 30-years of diverse experience working for profit, not-for-profit, and government organizations on a local, regional, and global level. Hawkins has a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's degree in management. He is a graduate of the Chicago Police Academy with over 1,000 hours of training in the areas of security, law enforcement and emergency management with such specialty agencies as the FBI, Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command, and counter terrorism agencies in Israel. He has been a member of ASIS International for 22 years and a frequent speaker during the society's annual seminar and exhibits.
On Thursday, October 14, Hawkins will present "Violence in the Church: Lessons Learned from 2009 Incidents," which will review actual cases of church violence and the lessons learned for preventing further incidents.
So Jeff, why houses of worship security? Seems like just a small niche?
Over the last four years, starting at the Las Vegas conference, we started addressing security for houses of worship and faith-based organizations because it really hadn’t been done before. And there seemed to be a big interest in it. Every year we’ve addressed a different topic and the crowds have increased during these sessions. This year I’m going to be talking specifically about incidents that have happened in the Christian church last year, taking three or four actual incidences, reviewing them, and showing what could have been done to prevent them.
The highest profile attack had to be on George Tiller , the abortion doctor. Will you be covering that?
Probably, but there were 12 homicides in the Christian church alone last year. People remember the high-profile ones, but those are actually easier to see the security flaws. We’ll touch on all the homicides, but we’ll look at the pattern of why they happened.
Generally, when violence occurs in a church setting, is it generally when services are going on?
No, not at all. In fact, it’s probably more so during normal business hours—such as during the week when the church is open for business but there’s no service taking place. We’ve seen violent attacks on receptionists, church secretaries, volunteers, and clergy when they’re working alone or when very few people are in their building. That comes back to basic security principles that we understand in the security industry but are not being followed by these houses of worship. Things like you can’t leave your doors open, you have to have an intercom buzzer system, you have to have a camera system, you have to have some sort of duress or panic alarm. Churches and faith-based organizations really don’t understand that because they never had to operate like that before.
What’s typically the motivation behind the violent attacks you’ve studied?
It’s a pretty good mix. Sometimes it’s just a direct attack of violence, like sexual assaults, robberies, and kidnappings. But we’ve also seen attacks against clergy, pastors, priests, and nuns just because of the position they hold.
Are these attackers mentally disturbed or ill generally?
Sure. The people that commit violent acts that we see are no different than a lot of the other ones we see in all other industries. They’re the addicts, the mentally ill, and the career criminals.
Because it was such a high-profile case, was there anything anyone could have done to stop the murder of George Tiller? It just seems hard to stop if a house of worship is going to maintain an open worship service.
Absolutely: there were many things that could have been done. Security is never 100 percent, but no security is 100 percent vulnerability and this was a perfect example. In any institution that you’re inviting the public in, security is difficult. But here’s the caveat with the Tiller murder. In any lone wolf gunman attack, that’s going to be the hardest thing to predict and stop. But there are some key things that should have been recognized with Tiller; the guy was very high profile and a high risk. There had been an attempt on his life before. He had a body guard all the other times he was outside of the church. His house was like a fortress. His abortion clinic was like a fortress. He wore a bullet-proof vest. He drove an armored car, but yet when he got to church, there were no added security precautions. So just by the very fact that you had a Dr. Tiller coming to your church, he should have been treated like any other high profile, high-risk person. If you had Sarah Palin attending your church or the president, you know you have to take added security precautions. From everything that we gathered on the Tiller incident, there were absolutely no security precautions taken. This guy should have been assigned security personnel. He should have not been allowed to be an usher where he could float around the church, because that’s what the gunman was waiting for. If he had just been told that he couldn’t be an usher, that he’d have security personnel walk him to his car, into the service, and back out to his car after the service, it might have been prevented. It is estimated that eighty percent of the time that a shooter, whether they are mentally ill or not, does a crime like this, they have visited the venue before to plan it out. This guy was no exception. He had attended church services before to see Tiller’s patterns, to see that he was wearing a bullet-proof vest, and to plan out exactly when he was going to do it. There were a lot of things that could have been done that wouldn’t have turned this church into a fortress, but might have prevented this from happening at the church.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding the Dove World Church’s scheduled Koran-burning event (which was subsequently called off). Is there really anything that can be done to protect a church like this, which is extremely high-profile and extremely objectionable to a lot of people?
There are probably a lot of things that could be done.
But let me constrain you here a bit, considering security would have to be cheap. The pastor only has a congregation of about 50 people.
Well that is something that the pastor and church leaders need to consider before they even put themselves in a position of becoming a “high-risk” target. Everyone at that church knew this was going to happen. But in general, that becomes the issue and the problem with security and churches. There’s always going to be some cost. But generally, churches have in their congregation off-duty or former law enforcement people, military people, paramedics; people that can create a security and safety team on a volunteer basis, which is an advantage. Now you find churches that are utilizing security and law enforcement professionals to act as their security team and do a lot of the things that need to be done during services, especially high-profile events. Chances are the Florida pastor doesn’t have it with the 50 people that he has in his church. In this particular instance, I think this is the extremism of religion. Like we see with extremism in the Muslim community, this is the extremism of Christianity. There isn’t anyone in the Christian community that I have spoken with that supports whatever this guy is doing. This guy is bringing the risk to himself and unfortunately others. I hate to say it, but I have very little sympathy for this pastor.
What I worry about is that on radical Islamic Web sites there have been threats against all Christian churches. The Christian Security Network just sent out a warning to all of the churches that we have contact with—almost 10,000—saying that over the next week, depending on what happens, you really have to raise your level of awareness based on whatever happens on Saturday. Now if this guy backs down, doesn’t do it, and nothing happens: great. But if he goes ahead and does it, then there’s an increased jihad against all Christian churches; it’s just not Gainesville, Florida, that has to worry about. It’s anywhere in the country. There’s already that tensions between the religions because of the building of the mosque in New York and the attempted arson of the mosque in Tennessee. And now you have this guy adding fuel to the fire.
You know there was almost 100 Christian churches set on fire last year. This year there’s been about 75 to date. That’s a lot of churches burned that you don’t hear about in the general media.
Are these typically black churches?
No, it’s not what you would think. Thirty, 40, 50 years ago, during the civil rights movement it was black churches being burned by the KKK, but it’s rarely that anymore. You can’t use the FBI’s Hate Crime indicators on what religions are being targeted because 98 Christian churches were victims of arson last year. Out of those, maybe two or three were classified as hate crimes. So if you just look at the FBI’s hate crime statistics, you go “Hey, only three Christian churches were targeted last year. That’s not bad.” But if you look at the actual arson figures, it’s almost 100 churches.
In a climate where you have such religion tension and animosity, with churches, mosques, and synagogues being burned down: How do you adequately protect yourself from that?
You take the precautions that any other business would. I’ve been doing security and law enforcement for 30 years. When I started, it was really trying to convince all businesses, “You know what, you need an alarm, you need lighting, you need locks, you need guards, etc.” They just didn’t understand. There were burglaries happening all over the place. Thirty years later, our profession has had an impact where you can’t walk into anywhere—whether it’s a shopping mall, museum, or an office complex—without seeing cameras, guards, fences, lighting, etc. All the things that we now take for granted, what we consider “normal security” in our every day lives. But then you look at faith-based organizations and churches and they never had to face this before. The house of worship was always considered that sacred ground. They could leave their doors open 24/7 and nobody was going to do anything to them. It’s not that way anymore. Over 75 percent of churches in the United States do not have any security at all.
Is that a resources thing or is it a perception thing?
It’s an ignorance thing and I don’t mean that in a negative way. They’re just not aware of the risks and actual incidents. There was a shooting two weeks ago in Fresno, California, in a Church of Latter Day Saints, where a bishop was killed. It was a mentally deranged gunman, who walks in and asks someone in between services on a Sunday, “Who’s the head of the church?” They point to the Bishop’s office where he’s doing paperwork. The guy walks in a shoots and kills him. I did a radio interview with a Fresno radio station out there and they said, “Well isn’t this just so unusual that this happens?” And I said, “Are you kidding me?” They really thought this was such an isolated incident in a church.
And that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing what we’re doing with ASIS in developing this houses of worship/faith-based organization committee. The goal is to bring together Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon security people and start putting together information to better educate the religious community in general, because they are just not aware of how rampant crime is against houses of worship.
We go out and do risk assessments for churches all the time. That’s part of what the Christian Security Network does. And we go all over the country. And we do small churches, large churches, country churches, city churches. You name it, we’ve done it. But they all have the same commonality: they don’t take the basic precautions. For instance security measures like lighting. Studies have shown that good lighting alone will reduce crime, but churches don’t do it. They leave, they shut their lights off, and their church may be dark for days. If your church is dark 90 percent of the time, and it sits off the roadway, and passing cars or police can’t see, that gives a criminal opportunity to go in and set a fire, commit a burglary, or some other crime without being detected.
So for all those reading this: What’s the best way to start assessing the insecurities of where they worship?
First and foremost get buy-in from your church leadership. We recommend that every church start a safety ministry comprised of people in their congregation who have emergency management, fire safety, law enforcement, and security experience and then let those people go to work on creating a safe environment. We always recommend a risk assessment be done first, whether they do it in-house or they get someone else to do it. Even though churches, synagogues, and mosques are all houses of worship, no two are going to be the same. There’s no cookie-cutter recipe. The basic security principles apply across the board equally, but how they’re going to be implemented is going to be dependent on the church itself. Just start with the basics. There was over $100 million in property loss last year in the Christian community alone because of crime. That’s a staggering number and a lot of it could be prevented by simply locking doors, keeping lights on, developing relationships with your local police department for patrols, and making your staff more aware. The church needs to catch up with the rest of the business world in crime prevention.