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How to stop violence in places of worship

What both mega and small places of worship have in common is entry and exit points that can be controlled and staff and volunteers who can be trained.

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The Nov. 5 mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, has been met with a familiar response. While police searched for a motive, the left focused on gun control and the right called for better mental health care. Both sides said it was too early to politicize the issue, and waited to see if the violence was at all linked to a terrorist group — foreign or domestic — so that it could be explained away as if it never happened. And, as per usual, no matter the motive or method, nothing will change.

densley photo
James Densley

In the coming days and weeks, nothing can be said to be certain, except that we cannot wait for the politicians to act if we are to do something about the next public mass shooting. This is especially true of shootings at places of worship. 

In recent years, there have been a number of fatal shootings at religious sites, including the 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; the 2015 attack on a bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; and the shooting at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee, this September. Data show violence in general at places of worship is rising, and religious hate crime in particular is up by nearly 23 percent year-on-year.

The question is not why this is happening, but what can we do about it?

Filling the void

Simon Osamoh

After the Oct. 31 van attack in New York City, President Donald Trump was flush with policy recommendations, including new restrictions on travel visas and a crackdown on illegal immigration. After the Texas massacre, the president failed to offer one tangible solution. One of us is a criminologist specializing in the study of violence. The other is a church security practitioner with 14 years of law enforcement experience. We thought we might fill the void.

First, we must recognize that places of worship are suitable targets for motivated offenders, especially those motivated by hate. As places of civic importance where the masses congregate, churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques are “high value” targets where attacks can be low budget, but big box office.

Second, because they are inherently open spaces without police and other forms of capable guardianship, places of worship are not just suitable targets, but “soft targets.” Pope Francis said as much after the July 2016 murder of a priest by ISIS in a church in northern France.

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Neither intrusive nor expensive

The easy solution is “target hardening.” The problem is, the concept is too often undersold to mean high-tech surveillance. In reality, target hardening doesn’t have to be intrusive or expensive. It must be differentiated according to a site’s readiness and security culture. Armed guards are acceptable in some mega churches. Not so much at a local parish. But what both places have in common is entry and exit points that can be controlled and staff and volunteers who can be trained.

A lot of church violence begins and ends in the parking lot. Securing the perimeter is the first step toward safety. Monitor traffic. Lock doors and windows. While doing so, watch for behaviors that seem incongruous with a place of worship.

The routine of religious adherence means that an estranged husband knows where his wife and children will be on a Sunday morning, and a disgruntled worker knows when he can confront his boss out of office hours. Domestic spillover and personal conflict are the second and third most common motives in deadly force incidents in places of worship, after robbery. Only by knowing their congregation personally can church personnel identify what looks out of place and interrupt potential violence.

Open questions

The famous Moscow Rules for CIA operatives read, “Never go against your gut; it is your operational antenna. … If it feels wrong, it is wrong.” The good news is you don’t have to be in the CIA to practice this. Ushers and greeters can be trained to spot unusual behaviors and get at “intent” through conversational interviewing — asking open questions of all on-site visitors. Retailers and other service providers are expert at doing this. Walk into any Great Clips hair salon in America and someone at the front desk will ask, “What brings you here today?” The answer is obvious: a haircut. But the question begs for an answer, and that is just what the stylist needs to start building rapport.

When white supremacist Dylann Roof joined a Bible study at a historically black church in Charleston, carrying a bag full of guns and ammo, not one person greeted him to ask what he was doing there. When questioned by the FBI, Roof expressed surprise at this, to the extent that had someone approached him that day, he conceded his own anxieties might have prevented him from executing the mass shooting that followed.

Broader safety policies and procedures can be built on the back of basic situational awareness. While church violence is rare and mass shootings in places of worship extremely so, the fact remains that “if you see something, say something” is second nature now on subways and in airports. Metal detectors and armed security envelop every stadium and public building in America. For better or worse, even school children practice how to run, hide, fight

Places of worship need to face up to the realities of their routine activities. There is no safe in security. But currently at places of worship across the United States there is no security at all, including at sites with day-care centers and concert halls. Waiting for the politicians to act is not a solution. Securing places of worship starts now, and it starts with all of us.

James Densley, Ph.D., is an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and co-founder of The Violence Project LLC. Simon Osamoh is a former police officer and founder and director of Kingswood Security Consulting, which specializes in securing places of worship.  


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