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.
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: