Responding to Threats

How churches can be vigilant in their security and threat assessment efforts.

In working with churches, I have come across a common tenet: the church must be an open and inviting place for all people. But with the realities of church shootings and acts of violence, how does the church— the place that is open to everyone—protect itself from the harm that can result when people are not screened, when new faces are added every week, and when unpredictability is a constant?

It is well established that the church has no legal duty to protect against the criminal actions of a third party unless the criminal act was reasonably foreseeable. To determine whether it is reasonably foreseeable that a criminal act will occur, the church would consider if any criminal activity recently took place at the church or in the immediate area, look at the time frame of the occurrence (how close or remote in time it was), and whether the church had knowledge of the criminal activity. Knowledge also includes information that the church should have known: for example, by virtue of the fact that it was reported on the news or publicized in some fashion.

(Editor’s Note: Richard Hammar has addressed the topics of foreseeability and security in various pieces for Church Law & Tax , including “Failed Shooter Prevention and Fault,” “A Church’s Knowledge and Liability,” and “Can Technology Help Prevent Crime and Violence at Church?”)

Nonetheless, I believe that a church should be proactive in ensuring its security and that of its congregants. This also makes sense as a matter of risk management. Security experts and insurance professionals say security protocols and measures taken by a church go a long way in mitigating risk, which is its own benefit. On the insurance side, these steps can also help a church receive a lower insurance premium.

Security experts and insurance professionals say security protocols and measures taken by a church go a long way in mitigating risk.

Churches can take certain actions, some at determined intervals, some on a weekly basis, and any time a response to specific acts is needed. To make these action steps effective, the church needs a foundational security and safety plan. This plan should include a physical assessment of the property to determine any areas of vulnerability, the roles and responsibilities of the security team, and the protocols for addressing a safety breach or concern, including communication with emergency responders.

Checklists for Churches

At determined intervals—preferably annually—churches should:

  1. Coordinate with a local law enforcement agency to perform a security assessment of the church property. Most police departments or local precincts have a community affairs designee who will gladly assist and advise the church on security vulnerabilities at the property and offer recommendations.
  2. Update the security and safety plan. Every year, there are lessons learned that can be used to fine-tune the processes currently in place.
  3. Provide training for the security staff. Whether these are paid employees or volunteers, security personnel need to undergo regular training to review case studies, learn about new technology, and be thoroughly knowledgeable about the updated plan and protocols that are in place.
  4. Confirm the church’s evacuation location. An off-site location nearby must be ready to receive church members in case of an emergency.
  5. One of the elements included when I help a church introduce risk management into its operations is the development of a risk management team. During the course of one such exercise with a church, the team consisted of several ministry heads, including the head of the security ministry. As we discussed areas of vulnerability across the church from a risk perspective, it became apparent that many of the team members had a concern about the level of security at the church, whereas the head of the security ministry was of the opposite opinion. He simply did not see it as an issue, despite myriad examples and occurrences that were mentioned. The team eventually came up with the idea to have an out-of-the-box experiment to test the security protocols and practices in place. They decided to work with a police detective to assess their security fitness. The officer attended a service in plain clothes and found a point of entry, other than the main entrance, that was not manned during the busy service time. He entered the church, went to every floor without being questioned, accessed the reserved clergy parking lot, and even came within a close radius of the pastor.
  6. This experiment was used to revamp the church’s security and safety protocol and also to institute both basic and advanced procedures, including sign-in during the week for every guest, specified points of entry for guests (with others locked and only accessible to authorized personnel), security switches during service times to allow for the perimeter to be swept, and the introduction of an undercover security team.
  7. Tailoring Security to Your Church
  8. No two churches are alike, and each church tends to have a culture that is uniquely its own. In addition, supplemental factors should be taken into consideration when reviewing the church’s security protocols. These include, but are not limited to, the surrounding neighborhood and the corresponding crime statistics, as well as the profile of the church: e.g., some churches have a publicly known pastor or public figures who regularly attend, or they are involved in well-publicized community activities, such as gang prevention, which may make them more vulnerable or a target). Churches should evaluate and assess whether security is a high-ranking area of concern. If it is, then the protocols below can be helpful in providing a standard and consistent way of addressing the issue. If security is a lesser concern, then the church may employ some, but not all, of the steps. Either way, it is important to always be vigilant.
  9. On a weekly basis, churches should:
  10. Have the security team sweep the perimeter of the property and the sanctuary/chapel before and after every service.
  11. Review footage from any security cameras. (Note: the installation of security cameras is a necessity for today’s church. Security camera footage is one of the reasons the shooter at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was expeditiously identified.)
  12. Debrief with the leadership of the church regarding any security concerns.
  13. Maintain a visible and “invisible” security presence. Security personnel should be posted for the attendees to see, and there should also be a team known only to the leadership team that operates incognito throughout the sanctuary.
  14. “See something, say something” is a phrase used by law enforcement agencies to urge community members to report crimes; the same practice can be employed by the church. Church members should be advised that they are relied upon to convey anything they see which causes a security concern. Some churches have employed a text system to enable members to directly communicate with security during a service if they perceive a security threat. This allows for a response from the security team with minimal intrusion to the service and minimizes distractions or panic from the other congregants.
  15. Dealing with Threats

    In response to a specific act or threat, churches should immediately contact their local law enforcement agency. Even if there is the slightest concern, allow common sense and the Holy Spirit to give you direction, and do not second-guess yourself. When it comes to safety, it is better to be safe than sorry.

    Even if there is the slightest concern, allow common sense and the Holy Spirit to give you direction, and do not second-guess yourself.

    If you do not get an immediate sense of danger, then follow the steps below.

    1. Assess the viability of the threat.
      Who sent the threat? The person who sends the threat and the circumstances surrounding the delivery of the threat matter. Is it a disgruntled employee, an angry congregant, or an outside person?

      What is the basis of the threat? Does the person specify some action that he or she will take, or is it just the tone that is angry or seems threatening? A disgruntled former employee who angrily yells that he “will be back” has a higher degree of threat value than a member who emails the pastor about being unhappy about the trajectory of the church and “threatens” to bring the issue to the next church meeting.

      Also, consider whether there is any previous history with this person. This could be a predictor of the behavior to expect. If there is no history, assume that all factors are at play, including that the person may indeed be a danger.

      If the threat is deemed viable, contact your local law enforcement agency.

    2. If the threat is deemed obscure or low-level, your internal protocols should kick in. The head of the security team should review the situation with the security and leadership team.

      The person in question should be brought in for a conversation and admonished about sending communications with concerning overtones. If deemed necessary, the security team should consider placing this person on a “watch list”: an internal list, known only to security personnel, of persons who have created some cause for concern and require a high-alert posture from the security team when on the church premises.

      While working as legal counsel to a particular church, I was made aware—via an incident report and communication with the parties involved—that there had been an incident at the church during a ministry activity where two parties became involved in a verbal altercation. Security personnel were present and broke up the heated argument. One of the parties left, telling security staff that he would “see them [the security team members] in the streets.” This party was a known member of the church with a history of volatile behavior and angry outbursts, but no physical incidents. The security staff was concerned about the safety of one of their team members, whom he had threatened, and feared that the party would either return to the church to cause him harm or that the party would attack him when he was in the community.

      The following day, the individual who issued the threat was called into a meeting with an elder, the head of security, the security staff, and a family member. During the meeting, each person’s actions were discussed, emotions were de-escalated, and the matter was resolved with no further action. It was the church’s protocol to make me aware, as their attorney, of incidents they deemed to have potential risk associated with them.

    3. Not every incident ends this way, however; church violence is becoming too commonplace. This behooves the church to be vigilant, systematic, and proactive in addressing matters of security. A happy medium can be found between the church as a place with an open-door policy and a place where the safety of those present is valued and maintained.

      For additional information regarding these issues, see these resources:

Gisele Kalonzo-Douglas is an attorney, risk manager, strategic planning consultant, and crisis management professional with almost 20 years' experience.

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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