2012: "A Bad Year for Violence" at Churches

Last month, church security expert Carl Chinn updated his statistics on violent incidents at churches and faith-based organizations. He began tracking this information in 1999 by learning of incidents reported by news agencies, which he then independently researches and verifies before categorizing and tabulating them. The result of this work is 14 years of data churches can use to analyze the risk of violence for their congregation.

Chinn works for a security solutions firm serving the private sector, but his ministry background is extensive. Previously, he was building engineer for Focus on the Family, and he also served on the security team at New Life Church in Colorado Springs that responded to a 2007 shooting there. He frequently speaks to law enforcement groups, churches, and ministries nationwide.

His analysis of 2012 revealed 135 "deadly force incidents" and 75 deaths at churches and faith-based organizations—"a bad year for violence," he observed recently in a blog post on his site. Chinn recently spoke via phone with ManagingYourChurch.com to talk more about church security, shootings, and how churches can respond.

Q: Since 2009, the number of "deadly force" incidents surpassed 100 and stayed there. Is that a function of better reporting and information, or was something else going on during the past four years?

A: It's a little of both. It's mostly the availability of research. However, I do believe there is an increase in incidents. I believe there is decay in moral values in our country. There's a spiritual battle going on. Evil and righteousness are at war against each other and have been since the dawn of time. We are going to see that play out at our churches, at our ministries, and at our faith-based organizations.

One example of how this plays out is the breakdown of the family. Many of these incidents at churches are spillovers from domestic situations. Between 1999 and 2011, less than 14 percent of all incidents at churches were attributed to a domestic spillover; in 2012, that increased to 16.5 percent. When the economy is hard, marriages are strained. There are a lot of pressures on the family. As churches, we need to understand that. Whether you have 10,000 people, 2,000 people, or 200 people, you have strained relationships in your congregation.

Another reason for the increase is that, after events like 9/11, or the shooting at Virginia Tech, or Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, we are seeing what's called "target hardening," meaning an increase in public building safety. As these sites become more secure, it doesn't mean there are any less bad guys out there. The ratio of criminals hasn't gone down. It means there's a ratio of fewer places where they can conduct their criminal activity. Churches and faith-based organizations are seen as soft targets.

Q: Some will say the number of incidents in 2012, compared to the total number of churches and worshipers in the country, actually demonstrates the rarity of these acts. Is there a proper context with which to view this data?

A: The chance of being killed in a violent manner on church property is roughly the same as being struck by lightning. Here's the difference: We don't go out in lightning storms and raise our hands, or stay on golf courses, or go fishing. I have some awareness to treat lightning with caution. That's all I'm asking for churches: to be aware. Do simple things to make sure people are safe.

Q: When church leaders think about a potential shooting situation, they often assume it unfolds inside the building. Yet you observe that incidents outside the building are "two-to-one more likely." How should this affect church leaders' thinking and planning?

A: I don't want churches to start looking like Fort Knox and to become suspicious of every person going through the door. But they need to be aware of what's happening in the parking lot. For instance, most abductions at churches in the past 10 years happened in the parking lot or playground, not someone taking someone out of a classroom.

Technology can help with this, although church size plays a role. A small church can get by with one or two cameras on the outside of the building, or even just by assigning one person who either stands outside during the service or occasionally looks outside to be aware of what's going on. I always tell churches to start simple and keep it simple. Work with what you've got. Don't spend money on systems when you don't have the money.

Q: That's a concern we often hear—many believe they don't have the resources to adequately address church security.

A: I tell churches to follow the "three Ps":

1. People. Find one person in the congregation with a heart for protection and assign them to that responsibility. Then empower them to start building a team and a plan.
2. Parts. These are cameras, access controls, panic buttons, AED defibrillators—tools. Big churches should have these. These may be less practical for smaller churches. In those situations, you get people in your congregation trained or certified to fulfill some of those functions—such as first-aid certification or government-offered courses that teach people to be able to respond. Ready.gov and CERT programs offered locally are some of the best resources. This gives your folks an opportunity to sit with people in the readiness/response industry, a chance for them to hear principles of protection and response that they otherwise may not have heard.
3. Procedures.

Q: In your analysis, you note guns were used in 58 percent of the incidents since 1999, and you note a frequently quoted phrase—"The best way to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun." Does this inform your thinking about how churches should view their security planning?

A: I do not believe it's about guns or a lack of guns. If there are people who are intentional about protecting the property, they're going to be powerful. There are a lot of incidences out there where a gunman was stopped, and it wasn't with guns. In 1988, a shooter at a church in Kansas was stopped because one churchgoer threw a hymn book at him while he reloaded, which created an opportunity for others to knock him to the ground. A lot of the training today focuses on throwing whatever you've got at the shooter.

Q:Richard Hammar, our senior editor, considers off-duty police officers in the church the best option, in terms of armed security. Have you seen churches rely upon off-duty police officers to fulfill their security concerns, and if so, what kind of results have you seen?

A: The formula that makes the most sense for the majority of churches is to have people in the congregation trained as ready and willing volunteers. And if they're sitting in the congregation, and they happen to be an off-duty officer, that's the very best. But that's only if they've met the other off-duty officers and volunteers, and everyone knows each other.

Many smaller churches won't have the luxury of off-duty law enforcement in their midst, just based on their size or the size of their local community. In those cases, they should realistically consider what they're doing to do if someone starts shooting. They should include their insurance underwriter in that conversation. But they need to have the conversation.

Larger churches need to have those conversations, too. A lot of pastors at larger churches just say, "I know we have a bunch of off-duty officers. I know if something were to happen, they'd get involved." I ask them, "Have you met with them? Have they met each other?"

In a crisis, chaos is going to set in. [Off-duty officers] are the best resource you have. Just make sure they know each other and the other players involved.

The "Gleanings" section of our sister site ChristianityToday.com provides more details from Chinn's report. To go deeper on church security, check outProtect Your Church From Crime and Violence, Dealing with Dangerous People, and Does Your Church Need a Security Guard?, all available on ChurchLawAndTaxStore.com.

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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