10 ways to protect houses of worship from violence

Churches, synagogues, and mosques are turning to security consultants to protect congregants

By Jared Shelley

Over the past six weeks, terrorists have attacked churches, synagogues, and mosques in countries across the globe. The most recent attack, an antisemitic shooting at a California synagogue, occurred six months after a mass shooter killed 11 congregants of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, little more than a month after an attack on a New Zealand mosque and just a week after Easter bombings in Sri Lanka that killed nearly 300. Needless to say, religious communities of all denominations are exploring security solutions in the wake of these tragedies.

Everyone is concerned that their religious institution could be the next target,” said Thomas Ruskin, president of the CMP Protective and Investigative Group. “The recent shootings in Pittsburgh and New Zealand have definitely accelerated the dialogue with security professionals and religious institutions — no matter what denomination.”

Bill Worth, managing partner and lead instructor at Countermeasure Consulting Group, agrees: “It’s on everybody’s mind. The problem is, they don’t know where to start.”

Houses of worship have particularly tough security challenges. They want open-door policies. Accepting newcomers and people who’ve fallen on hard times is a major part of their missions. They typically house the most vulnerable people like children and seniors. It’s led many to turn to security consultants for help. Worth says his business has grown around 50 percent in the past year. Ruskin says his business has increased by around 300 percent in the past two-and-a-half years — with a major uptick after the Pittsburgh shooting.

But money is typically tight. Sure, mega-churches might be flush with cash (one has even lobbied for its own police force), but much smaller houses of worship run on a razor-thin budgets. Some apply for federal or state grants. The Nonprofit Security Grant Program and Department of Homeland Security have provided $269 million to religious institutions, according to a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Others are relying on wealthy members for donations to get new security programs off the ground.

To learn more about protecting houses of worship from security threats, we asked Ruskin and Worth for recommendations. They offered the following mix of common sense, low-tech fixes and more expensive, sophisticated higher-tech solutions.

10 Ways To Secure Houses of Worship

Lock doors: While this may seem like simple advice, many houses of worship leave their doors wide open. Worth said he recently visited a church looking to add more security measures and was surprised to see just how many doors were unlocked and unattended on a Sunday morning. “They could go through the kitchen door, they could go in the side door. If you don’t have somebody observing those doors, anybody can come in. A bad guy is going to think about coming in a door that’s unattended.”

Limit access to children’s areas: During that same site tour, Worth described that any adult could walk to the children’s classrooms and playrooms — a security breach he insists they stop. “The only people who need to be in children areas are teachers, staff, children, and parents.”

Train ushers and greeters to watch out for suspicious people. Does anyone raise a red flag? Look out of place? Never visited before? Seem nervous? If so, alert security personnel.

Interact. If you don’t recognize someone and they seem suspicious — say hello. Are they blowing you off? Are they genuinely interacting? That’ll give security personnel a good feel for the person and help you determine if they should intervene.

Protective car barriers. Adding a decorative planter or another barrier on the sidewalk won’t just add a little greenery to your landscape, it’ll prevent a car from driving onto your property and intentionally crashing into your building.

Bulletproof or bullet resistant glass. Fortifying a house of worship with bulletproof glass or less-expensive bullet resistant glass can help protect against a shooter from the outside.

License plate readers. Using cameras and image recognition technology, license plate readers take images of a car’s tags and alert security personnel if a person of interest drives onto the property. It’s an effective security technique but only against people who are a known threat.

Dual-door entrance systems. You can enter through one door which then must be shut before a second door opens. In the event of an intruder, “you’re basically locking them in until law enforcement can respond,” said Ruskin.

Rely on local law enforcement: The local police force knows how cash-strapped religious institutions can be, and they’re typically happy to help. “Local law enforcement for special occasions or the holiest day in the religious calendar will afford a police officer patrol car to be stationed there as extra protection,” said Ruskin.

Weapons scanners and object recognition systems. If you have the money and staff, weapon detection systems or object recognition video solutions can be an effective security tool. But remember, it requires someone from security personnel to be able to react quickly when a concealed weapon is detected and then follow the proper protocols and procedures to redirect the individuals with the threat to a secondary screening area without signaling an alarm. As for object recognition video systems, once a weapon is recognized out in the open, security needs to move much quicker. Unfortunately, for many non-profit and not-for-profit institutions, the price of these new systems may be too large a lift. “Certain places are looking towards that in the future,” said Ruskin, “but you’re looking at a higher end of a budget.”

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

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