Most people call the police after a theft or break-in. At that point, theft prevention is too late. Your stuff is gone, and it’s unlikely that police will recover it unless you have given them serial numbers of everything that was taken. A church security expert suggests that ministries might improve their resistance to property crimes by calling police beforehand.
“Police really want to be involved,” says John Casey, president of the National Association of Church and School Security. “But they won’t call churches and say, ‘Can we see you?'”
Enlisting your local police department’s help may be the most affordable, effective way to strengthen your ministry’s defense against property crimes, Casey suggests.
Explore an Officer’s Arsenal
Most police and sheriff departments have crime prevention officers who would be willing to visit your ministry and identify ways to improve your security—at no cost.
Often, they can:
- Provide a list of crimes committed in your neighborhood
- Offer theft-proofing tips tailored to your building and ministry
- Alert you to local crime trends
- Identify gang signs
- Advise you on how to develop security procedures
- Teach incident scene preservation
- Provide additional patrols
- Park in your lot while doing routine reports
If you have never invited police onto your property, consider doing it now, Casey says. “A lot of them will give you great ideas you’ve never thought of,” he says. For best results, he advises, get to know your local officers and develop an ongoing relationship.
Develop Security Procedures
Your local police will likely recommend that you develop a set of procedures for deterring and responding to potential threats, both internal and external. Consider tapping people with law enforcement training who attend your church. They’re familiar with your ministry and can offer their expertise with an insider’s insight. Security procedures might address any or all of the following issues:
- Providing security during services
- Addressing people acting suspiciously
- Knowing when to call police
- Implementing financial controls
- Guarding the offering
- Securing the building
- Protecting vehicles in the parking lot
- Creating a property inventory
- Labeling valuable items
If you already have written security measures, give the local police officer a copy of them, and ask if there are any areas in which you could improve.
One of the first theft-prevention suggestions a police officer may provide might seem simplistic: Lock up valuables and keep them out of sight. A surprising number of churches don’t do this.
“A lot of churches leave laptops out in the open,” Casey says. “These are things that should be secured somewhere out of sight.
“You don’t want people to be able to look through glass windows and see items of value,” Casey says. “That lets them know immediately that all they need to do is get through that door, grab it, and leave.”
To protect property:
- Secure larger items, such as laptop computers, DVD players, and musical equipment.
- Remove donation boxes and signs that advertise cash, such as “Finance Office” or “Donation Receipts.”
- Lock the doors of interior offices, classrooms, and supply rooms when not in use.
- Restrict access within the building.
- Carefully monitor who has keys or access codes.
- Encourage your congregation to leave valuables at home or in locked car trunks during services.
Prevent Identity Theft
When breaking into churches, today’s thieves have an additional target: personal information. How easily could someone find records in your church that contain names, birthdates, and even Social Security numbers?
“That type of information, in this day and age, is sometimes more valuable to these guys as an iPod or a laptop,” says Todd Evans, a retired law enforcement lieutenant and director of training programs for the National Association of Church and School Security. “
Instead of storing employment or volunteer records in a secretary’s drawer, Evans recommends locking them in file cabinet in a secure office.
Protect Surveillance Equipment
If your church records action captured by video cameras, remember to secure the data gathering equipment in a locked office or closet. If a VHS player on the secretary’s desk is recording surveillance video, it would be simple for a thief to steal the tape and destroy valuable evidence, Evans said.
“If they can pop it out and take it with them, then the surveillance system did you no good,” he says.
Preserve an Incident Scene
If someone does break into your church, it’s important to avoid the affected area until police arrive investigate the theft. When you see that someone has broken a window, your first instinct might be to clean up the mess, so no one gets hurt, Evans says. However, this can destroy fingerprints and other evidence police might use to prosecute the burglar.
Mark Your Stuff
Another common tip officers may offer is to label expensive equipment and maintain a list of everything your ministry owns, complete with photographs and serial numbers. This won’t prevent theft, but it may help you recover or replace any items that are stolen. A current inventory of your ministry’s property will also help you determine how much insurance coverage you’ll need. Your insurance agent may assist you with tips or checklists.
A crime prevention officer might also suggest that you engrave the church’s initials in a hidden location, so that you can identify a stolen keyboard, for example, even if you don’t know its serial number.
“When the police show up, you can say: here’s what was stolen. We’ve engraved our stuff, and here’s where you will find our initials,” Casey says.
That will help police not only recover stolen goods, but also prosecute the people responsible for taking it.
Finally, officers will remind you that preserving the safety of your staff and members is more important than protecting possessions. Avoid confronting a would-be thief, and be alert to situations that could endanger people. For example, if someone suspicious were on church property, most pastors would feel the need to go up and talk to the person. If possible, don’t do it alone, Casey advises. Bring another person with you.
When approaching the stranger, note his attributes—height, hair color, complexion, clothing, and any scars, tattoos or other distinguishing features. If the person leaves in a car, try to note the make, model, and license plate number. If it’s safe to do so, consider taking a cell phone picture or video of the person or vehicle, storing the information in your phone.
If you feel threatened at any time, you should get away and call the police immediately.
Prevention the Best Medicine
Police can help your ministry during a crisis, but they may be even more valuable in helping you avert potential problems. Ask your local police what resources they offer to help your ministry strengthen its defenses against theft, burglary, and other security threats.