Alleged Rape Underscores Church Office Security Needs
Ways church leaders can assess vulnerabilities before they're exploited

Editor's Note: A man hired to handle odd jobs at an Oklahoma City church was arrested last week and charged with raping a church employee. The man's background included two prior convictions for burglary, and two prior violations of protective orders, according to KOCO, a local television station.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victim and the church during this difficult time.

Churches must think through possible vulnerabilities, whether it's the screening of employees, vendors, and contractors, or situations in which a staff member can become isolated, such as a church office. Below is "Strategic Security," a free article that first published in Your Church and now appears on our sister It can help church leaders identify and address vulnerabilities before those vulnerabilities are exploited:

A pastor and passengers riding in a car in Fullerton, California, were attacked by gang members, who pursued them into the church and held them at bay by hurling rocks.

Thieves took $1,800 worth of food for the needy from a Menlo Park, California, church.

A church fire in Orangeburg, South Carolina, was ruled arson.

A rash of break-ins hit churches in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Iowa.

A former trustee of a Philadelphia church was charged with defrauding the congregation.

In former days, churches were considered sanctuaries from the depredations of the outside world. Today, any crime that can happen at a home or business can also occur at a church, including the offenses cited above, which makes up only a partial list of incidents that occurred in February 2009.

"The threat is very real," says Michael Hodge, president and owner of Michael A. Hodge and Associates, a Washington, D.C. security management consulting firm. "Now [criminal] people are recognizing that churches are places that do not, for the most part, have security programs in place. They notice there isn't a lot of deterrence around."

The goal for church leaders is to maintain safe and secure conditions for both their property and people. This level of security requires a plan to deter criminals while maintaining a welcoming environment for church members and visitors.

Job one: the risk assessment

Consultants believe a church should first conduct a risk assessment to determine its own unique security situation, and only then come up with a plan.

"Every church is different. Is it an old or a new building? Large or small? City or country? One building or many buildings? There's no cookie cutter recipe we can use that will solve all problems," said Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network, a Cincinnati firm that consults churches and collects reports of crimes against them.

When conducting the risk assessment, Hodge recommends looking at four elements. These include the history of incidents at the church, the history of crime in the neighborhood, any political stances taken by the church, and whether the church has an adequate security plan.

The risk assessment should include the understanding that churches are often easier targets than private residences, especially for burglars.

"That's because churches are so predictable," said Hawkins. "A burglar who's going to target a house is taking a chance. Is somebody going to be home? Do they have a dog? An alarm system? Locks on the doors? But churches are pretty easy as far as figuring when people are going to be there and not going to be there."

What every security plan needs

Although each church is unique, experts say that all church security plans should at least pay attention to ways of monitoring the property and protecting vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly. Those who plan harm to your church should be able to see enough of a security presence to conclude, "I can't get away with anything here."

A top-notch plan includes these pieces:

* Controlling access to the building with secure locks and limited key access.

* The use of computer-controlled coded keypads for building entry at times other than normal office hours or Sundays.

* Control and observation of the perimeters of buildings and grounds. This includes elements such as sufficient lighting and electronic surveillance.

* Trimming hedges and otherwise eliminating places where dangerous people can hide.

* Installation of alarm systems and motion detector lights

* Establishing standards of behavior, especially for special events such as weddings and wedding receptions

* Setting up a communications system that enables security personnel to quickly and effectively exchange information

* Reducing the risk of assaults by providing escorts to and from vehicles and by stationing monitors in the parking lot.

Hawkins advises churches to come up with procedures to cover emergency evacuation, setting up a shelter in place (often used during severe weather), medical emergencies, missing or lost children, and violent confrontations. Once your plan is in place, keep reviewing and amending it, said Travis Hayes, risk management director for World Outreach Center, a large church in Greenville, South Carolina.

"It has to be a living document. You can never say you're done with it. We've seen a lot of things but we run into new situations all the time. When we do, we document them and learn how to handle them," he said.

Church security hot spots

Focus on the "three L's": lighting, locks, and landscaping. Concentrating on these three factors first can quickly enhance the security of a church.

• Locks: Make sure all doors have strong locks that are properly installed. Ask a professional locksmith to evaluate your doors and windows. Make sure all unused areas of the church are locked. Pay careful attention to door and window frames. The strongest lock in the world won't deter a burglar who can bust through a rickety frame.

• Lighting: "If you drive by almost any church at night, almost all the lights are off, both internal and external. Burglars like to operate in the dark. Lighting is one of the easiest fixes to automatically increase your security," said Hawkins.

• Landscaping: Stand on the street, look at your church and see whether you have any landscaping that can hide somebody. This includes trees, bushes, shrubs, signs, and fencing. Look at basement windows and see if someone can hide in that area. Pay special attention to exit and entry areas of parking lots and buildings.

Theft is a particular problem in some churches. For Hayes and his team, the most common occurrences are petty thefts and attempts to steal purses and church equipment. When energy prices are high, church vehicles are vulnerable to fuel theft.

"You also need provisions for handling contributions," he said. "The larger the church, the more funds and contributions are coming through. You need to have provisions in place describing who handles them, where they go, who has access to them and who does not."

Security experts sometimes discover churches that have technical and mechanical security measures installed but inactive.

"So many times, churches are broken into through unlocked doors and windows. I find churches that have an existing alarm system that they don't use anymore because it's going off all the time. Find out why it's going off and make the adjustments so you can use it," said Hawkins.

Church offices and their contents need to be protected. Identity theft can be prevented by strict control over removal and disposal of documents and computer files. Hayes has seen an increase in these incidents in churches, as well as a rise in computer hacking.

"In November of 2008, our server firewall was hacked by somebody from China. We had to rebuild several computers and we were a few days without them being on line. No critical information was lost — it was more of an inconvenience," he said.

Tools to enhance your security

An array of technology ranging from high cost to no cost is available for churches to upgrade their security.

Some larger churches have installed high-definition closed circuit television monitoring systems to provide round-the-clock visual surveillance of the entire campus. Churches have installed sophisticated access-control devices that restrict entry of unauthorized personnel into restricted areas.

"The sky's the limit. All of these are things that can be put into place. Having a lot of these stems in place takes away the need for having personnel in place in some cases, but not all," said Hayes.

If your church cannot afford a full-blown security camera system now, it can still install the proper wiring to accommodate the system later. If a church is remodeling, erecting a new structure or installing a new sound system, it can "wire ahead" and install everything needed to hook up cameras, alarms, or emergency mass notification systems.

Software systems are available to integrate and operate every piece of a church's security technology.

"You don't have to buy three or four separate systems. You hook up your alarm, cameras, and mass notification systems to one system. Or you can add these things in baby steps as you get the money," said Hawkins.

This gradual approach to church security technology provides one way to determine the merit of electronic equipment vendors, Hawkins added.

"If someone wants to sell you everything at once and not give you an overall plan to work within your budget, be leery of that. They're just after a quick sale," he said. "You want somebody who will work with you on where you want to be in one, three, and four years from now. Good companies will work with you on the baby steps."

Plenty of lower-level technologies, such as pagers, can be valuable. Two-way radios are a key to maintaining proper communication among security and church staff. This is not an area to go cheap, say security experts.

"If you go to Walmart and buy the two or five-mile two way radios that are two to a pack, you're not going to get the best clarity. But you have to start with something. If that's all you have, that's better than nothing. If later the budget increases, look at radios such as four-watt and five-watt UHF radios," said Hayes.

Don't forget to explore measures that will cost you little or nothing. Free resources include training articles and other information in print and on the internet from security consulting firms and publications such as Your Church. Develop good relations with law enforcement and fire department personnel. Ask them to evaluate your property and to make suggestions on improving security. Ask police to include your property as part of their patrols.

Tightening up access to keys is another free and effective way to enhance security.

"One of the biggest breakdowns I find is lack of key control," said Hayes. "I have been in some churches that were 25 years old and have not re-keyed the building in their existence. They have no idea who has a key. This is something that can be done at zero cost."

Lurking liability

Physical security needs is a stewardship issue containing very real legal ramifications. Churches must guard against liability on two fronts: negligence and improper credentialing of security personnel.

Churches are at risk of lawsuit if they are aware of a security risk but do not take steps to reduce that risk.

"People will say, 'you invited me in your property. I have some expectation of being safe and secure. You have the responsibility to keep me safe.' You can't just ignore the problem," said Hawkins.

If your church has security personnel, make sure they have the proper licenses and training — particularly if they are going to carry weapons. Check with law enforcement officials, local and state governments and insurance companies to make sure your security team is operating by the book.

"I consulted a church where the parking staff wore neon vests that said 'security' on the back. If an officer of the law comes through there, they had better be prepared to show them their security licenses. You're required to have that license by having that word 'security' on a vest. Churches can be fined or prosecuted for operating a security business without a license," said Hayes.

Start small if you must…but start

These plans and procedures may sound overly ambitious to your church, especially during tough economic times. If you start with a risk assessment, you will at least have an idea of your needs and a logical place to begin putting a security plan in place.

"Go through your list and do as much as you can or afford. But put a plan together, even if it's a five-year plan," said Hawkins. "Maybe you can't afford alarm system or a camera system now. But at least make a plan and set aside money for these things and buy them in the coming years."

Lee Dean is a contributing editor to Your Church magazine, a publication of Christianity Today International.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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