Can Technology Help Prevent Crime and Violence at Church?

Pros and cons of security technology.

Like security guards, crime-fighting technologies should be implemented as a result of either or both of the following grounds:

(a) A legal duty to install technological devices may exist because the risk of shootings or other violent crimes on church property is highly foreseeable based on the following factors:

  • Whether any criminal conduct previously occurred on or near the property;
  • How recently and how often similar crimes occurred;
  • How similar the previous crimes were to the conduct in question; and
  • What publicity was given the previous crimes to indicate that the church knew or should have known about them?

(b) The use of one or more technological devices is deemed necessary to further a church’s theological and biblical principles, whether or not legally required.

In evaluating the feasibility of various technologies to prevent or reduce the risk of shootings in public schools, the United States Department of Justice noted that the effectiveness, affordability, and acceptability of each technology must be considered. To illustrate, many church leaders would regard metal detectors at church entrances to be unacceptable, even if affordable and effective, because they are incompatible with the concept of “sanctuary” and are at odds with biblical assurances of providence and divine protection. For many smaller churches, such devices would be unaffordable.

Listed below are three different devices that often are used to prevent or reduce the risk of crime. In each case, church leaders should consider the device’s effectiveness, affordability, and acceptability in evaluating its usefulness.

Surveillance Cameras

Surveillance cameras ordinarily cannot prevent shootings and other violent crimes on church property, but they can act as a deterrent to crime, provide a record of what happened, allow church staff to monitor the entire church campus from a single location, and expedite a call to the police in the event of suspicious behavior. On the downside: (1) surveillance cameras are expensive, and this disadvantage is compounded when multiple cameras are employed; (2) someone must be tasked with the responsibility of continually checking the monitors, and this removes the person from performing more active surveillance by personally visiting areas where people congregate; (3) selecting the appropriate equipment requires technical knowledge; (4) ongoing maintenance and operational support are required; (5) some individuals will challenge the need for cameras in a church; (6) persons with knowledge of the installed video system’s capabilities may not be deterred by them, and possibly could circumvent the system to their advantage or simply carry out their criminal acts in a different area of the church; and (7) cameras will not deter dedicated assailants, especially if they plan on killing themselves at the end of their crime spree.

“Experiments were run at Sandia National Laboratories 20 years ago for the U.S. Department of Energy to test the effectiveness of an individual whose task was to sit in front of a video monitors for several hours a day and watch for particular events. These studies demonstrated that such a task, even when assigned to a person who is dedicated and well-intentioned, will not support an effective security system. After only 20 minutes of watching and evaluating monitor screens, the attention of most individuals has degenerated to well below acceptable levels. Monitoring video screens is both boring and mesmerizing. There is no intellectually engaging stimuli, such as when watching a television program. This is particularly true if a staff member is asked to watch multiple monitors, with scenes of [persons] milling about in various hallways, in an attempt to watch for security incidents.” Department of Justice, Research Report: The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools.

Metal Detectors

Most church leaders, even in high crime areas, would consider the use of metal detectors at church entrances to be so offensive to congregational members and visitors and so fundamentally incompatible with the nature of the church as a sanctuary, that their use would be unthinkable. As noted above, risk management technologies must be evaluated in terms of their effectiveness, affordability, and acceptability. Even if metal detectors at church entrances would be an effective deterrent to violent crime, and affordable, they would be considered unacceptable by most church members. This would especially be so for churches in low crime areas, and with no history of shootings or other violent crimes on or near church property. In summary, the use of metal detectors at church entrances would be an extraordinary measure justified by only a high foreseeability of violent crime. Few churches, even in high crime areas, utilize these devices.

Here are some points to note about metal detectors:

  • Metal detectors work very well. They are considered a mature technology and can accurately detect the presence of most types of firearms and knives.
  • However, metal detectors work very poorly if the user is not aware of their limitations before beginning a weapon detection program and is not prepared for the amount of trained and motivated manpower required to operate these devices successfully.
  • When a questionable item or material is detected by such a device, the detector produces an alarm signal; this signal can be audible, visible (lights), or both. Unfortunately, a metal detector alone cannot distinguish between a gun and a large metal belt buckle. This shortcoming is what makes weapon detection programs impractical in many contexts. Trained employees are needed to make these determinations.
  • Metal detectors are usually not effective when used on purses, book bags, briefcases, or suitcases. There is usually a large number of different objects or materials located in or as part of the composition of these carried items that would cause an alarm.
  • The difficulty in interpreting the results of metal detector scans will require many persons to be pulled aside, as at an airport, for more thorough screening, including pat downs. The end result will be clogged lines of parishioners, shoes in hand, impatiently waiting to enter their church. One can easily imagine the firestorm this would elicit.
  • Walk-through metal detectors are expensive. An additional cost would be the use of trained operators.
  • A greater problem is the churches usually have multiple entry points. Few churches can afford to have multiple entry setups with complete metal detection equipment and trained operators. The cost of the equipment would be quite high, but not nearly as prohibitive as the manpower to run these multiple systems.
  • Metal detectors would not stop a dedicated and armed assailant, who could overpower the screeners.
  • Hand-held scanners are available, but generally are used as a supplement to portal metal detectors. As in airports procedures, the hand-held detectors allow the security staff to more accurately locate the source of an alarm on a person’s body, after he or she has already walked through a portal system and triggered an alarm.

“The initial purchase price of a portal metal detector is almost insignificant compared with the ongoing personnel costs to operate the equipment in a complete weapon detection program. An excellent example that illustrates this fact is the successful weapon detection program run by the New York City (NYC) Board of Education in about 50 of its inner-city high schools. For just one of its schools with about 2,000 students, the weapon detection program requires 9 security officers for approximately 2 hours each morning. Two officers run the two initial portal metal detectors, two officers run the baggage x-ray machines, one officer runs the secondary portal metal detector for students who fail the initialdetector, two officers (a male and a female) operate the hand scanners on students who fail the secondary metal detector, and two officers keep the students flowing smoothly and quickly through the system, such that nobody is able to bypass any part of the system. It should be noted that the only way these schools are able to avoid huge waiting lines, even with this much equipment and this many officers, and still get everybody to class on time is by a complete restructuring of their class periods. There is a significant staggering of first period start times so that the students arrive over a 90-minute period.” Department of Justice, Research Report: The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools.

Entry Control Technologies

There are four principal ways that places of public accommodation can permit or deny access. The first and most common approach is manpower intensive, and the remaining three employ technology devices. These four approaches are:

  • A security guard controls entry; ID cards o r other means of identification may be checked.
  • Electronic devices, such as a card reader, check special ID cards or badges issued to persons whose access is permitted. Viable card technologies for schools include bar codes or magnetic strips for card-swipe readers (such as those used for most credit cards) or passive or active radio frequency (RF) cards for proximity readers, which can validate a card several inches to several feet away (depending on the cost of the system).
  • A PIN number is issued to persons whose access is permitted, and such persons enter the number on a keypad to gain admittance.
  • A biometric device for feature recognition.

Such measures, like the use of metal detectors at church entrances, would not stop an armed and dedicated assailant. In addition, they would not be acceptable to most congregations since:

  • They would exclude visitors from attending church.
  • They would not accommodate members who forget their badge or card, or forget their PIN number. This could happen to any member, but the elderly would be most vulnerable to unintended exclusion.
  • Card readers do not read cards that have become demagnetized.
  • In the case of keypads and card readers, there is no way to ascertain that only a single authorized person is entering, since unauthorized persons could “tailgate” (follow an authorized person through the checkpoint).
  • Cards and badges can be stolen and used by unauthorized persons.
  • The cost of a card or badge reader, or keypad system, can be substantial, especially if used at more than one entry. e prospect of unhappy church members standing outside in the rain, unable to enter their church because of a machine malfunction, is an unpleasant but virtually certain scenario.
  • Keypads and card readers are prone to malfunction. The prospect of unhappy church members standing outside in the rain, unable to enter their church because of a machine malfunction, is an unpleasant but virtually certain scenario.

Some churches use keypads or card readers during the week to restrict access to church employees.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold 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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