Violence at Churches in 2017
The most violent year for faith-based organizations in the United States.
Violence at Churches in 2017
Image: Jaromir Chalabala / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Deadly Force Incident (DFI) study is a comprehensive look at the violent acts with deadly force potential affecting faith-based organizations across the United States. (An act with “deadly force potential” is defined as an attack that did, or could have, caused death.) From January 1, 1999 through December 31, 2017, there have been no fewer than 1,705 such violent incidents with deadly force potential. Of those, 478 were murders, leaving a total of 617 murdered victims over the course of the 19-year study.

The number of violent incidents that took place on the properties of churches and faith-based organizations nationwide—and the number of deaths resulting from those incidents—increased last year. In fact, 2017 was by far the most violent year for faith-based organizations in American history. That statement was true far before the November 2017 attack on a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The most violent years prior to 2017 (as measured by total violent deaths) were 2015 (77 deaths), 2012 (76 deaths), and 2014 (74 deaths). Without the inclusion of Sutherland Springs, 2017 had an astounding 92 violent deaths (118 including Sutherland Springs).

In the 18 years of my study on violence in faith-based organizations prior to 2017, there was a total of 108 suicides. Before 2017, 2011 had the highest suicide count at 15. In 2017 alone, however, there were 21 suicides. Three of those killed others before killing themselves, and all three cases stemmed from domestic violence.

The aggressors killed in 2017 were relatively low, at seven. Six of the seven were fugitives killed on a faith-based property due to fleeing from or fighting with law enforcement. One of the seven was killed by a church member defending himself in an armed robbery.

The highest number of murder victims in any prior year was 57 in 2012. 2017 broke that, even without Sutherland Springs. Counting Sutherland Springs, there were 90 murder victims. Of 63 murder events, only 7 had more than one victim killed. All multiple-victim events had 2 victims, except for Sutherland Springs (26).

While personal conflict and gang actions accounted for most events (nine each), the deadliest events (with the most victims) were rooted in domestic violence. Though only six of the attacks were domestic violence incidents, domestic violence attacks resulted in 32 murder victims. Many murder victims were found deceased on faith-based property, with no clues made public of why they were killed.

What your church can do

Prevention and readiness in churches are most effective when there is training and responsible initial responders are present. An initial responder is a protector on site at the workplace or church service, as opposed to a first responder who is dispatched by the 911 system (police, fire, and medical).

The best prevention measures to be agreed upon will take time to apply, and even after seasons of experience, they will not be conclusive. No solution switch can be flipped to prevent all attacks instantly and completely. But prevention efforts should continue to reduce their frequency and quantity—it is intentional readiness that will reduce the success of future attacks.

Carl Chinn helps prepare churches in the realm of security and advises law-enforcement groups on the subject of ministry security. He helped implement the security program at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2005—two years before he personally responded as part of a team that stopped an active shooter there. He is the author of Evil Invades Sanctuary: The Case for Security in Faith-Based Organizations. You can find out more on his website, www.carlchinn.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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