According to the “Houses of Worship Security Practices Guide” released by Homeland Security, 19% or 1 out of 5 hate crimes are motivated by differences in religious beliefs. Houses of worship are a tempting target because it is easy to assume that every person there shares the same religious belief.
What Makes A House of Worship A Target?
Besides the differences of religious belief, houses of worship make ideal targets because:
- They tend to be in a single location or building
- Assemblies happen at specific times
- They gather between 100-10,000 people at a time
If the perpetrator is targeting followers of a faith system instead of a single person, houses of worship are the ideal target. Assembly schedules are also rarely hidden, and they are even promoted on social media in some cases. If they want to do as much damage to as many people as possible with the least damage to themselves, this is the best venue.
What Are the Key Vulnerabilities of A House of Worship?
Some houses of worship have more, and some have less, of these key vulnerabilities. If a house of worship has already experienced an incident, their security practices might be stricter than others. Generally, these factors are true of most houses of worship:
- There is an open and welcoming atmosphere
- There is unrestricted access to the exterior and interior facilities, especially on days where there are assemblies
- There are unprotected facilities, especially when most attention and security are focused on the assembly halls
- There is limited security in general
The ideal atmosphere of a house of worship is that of a welcoming community. It’s not a club that requires an ID for access, or a store where you need to check out. Guests tend to be welcome, whether they are introduced by a current member or just walking in on their own steam.
Principles of Houses of Worship Security Practices
The best-laid security plans will never hold up to a situation 100%. When training employees and volunteers, stress the following principles:
- Expand the window of time for law enforcement to arrive at the scene
- Catch threats and delay the possibility of them happening
After calling 911, you need to give law enforcement time to arrive at the scene. Whether you are evacuating, locking down, or sheltering in place, remember that it’s best to do whatever you can to lessen the threat until they arrive. It’s also important not to underestimate threats or take them lightly, as long as no one causes panic. If an actual threat is made, take steps to prevent it.
Houses of Worship Security Practices
It would be simpler to put the security practices into steps or phases, but the truth is they usually run parallel to one another.
To simplify crisis response, the Incident Command System (ICS) should be put in place before anything else even happens. While the official ICS is strict and clear, a house of worship can maintain a very simple one.
- Incident commander. They are in charge of coordinating with whoever is responding to the crisis (first responders, law enforcement). They pick the command team, and make final decisions related to crisis response. As much as possible, they are the most experienced when it comes to security management.
- Public information officer. They are in charge of communications, and are the only ones who speak to the media (if ever there is media presence). They are very important to managing fake news, updates to the families and the community, and moderating what gets to the media.
- Head of operations. This is not the international standard title, but it’s someone you want to have. They are in charge of the strategies for crisis response, and for making sure they are carried out in the middle of the crisis.
- Liaison officer. This is also not the international standard title, but it’s someone you would want to have. When the responders come in, they are in charge of letting them know the latest updates. They only talk to responders, not to the media.
Security practices sound very operational, but for those in a crisis, they look immediately to people to know what to do. For example, the perceived religious leader in the assembly, whether a speaker or the main facilitator of the event, should know the crisis response strategies. They are the first voice of command to the attendees.
If the religious leader is the target and needs to be taken from the room or area, the person giving instructions should be an obvious person in command. They need to be head of security or another religious leader. It helps people respond faster if they trust the person speaking.
Every house of worship represents a community, whether geographic or religious. To reduce the number of people who might be affected and increase the time for law enforcement to arrive, prepare the communication in advance.
- Social listening. Listen to the regular attendees in the house of worship through your social media pages. Often those who are targeting a house of worship express their feelings and emotions first through social media. It helps in preparation.
- Communication plans. If any crisis happens, have a communication plan ready. It answers the questions:
- Who needs to know about what is happening? (911, off-duty security personnel, facility or area security)
- In what order do they need to know? For example, first responders should be the first to arrive. However, depending on your situation, other members of the community might also be on their way. Announcing it via social media or a speaker system as soon as possible could save lives.
- What should they know? It should be in clear language (no “Code Red”).
- What should they do? It might be to stay away from the area, to evacuate, lock down, or shelter in place.
- Local authorities. At the very least, the area or facility security and possible first responders should have a copy of your regular schedules and expected attendance, so they know how to respond. If you are having a non-regular or larger event than normal, it’s best to let them know as well.
Of the incidents at houses of worship, 70% are outside (surrounding streets, parking lots, facility area), while only 30% are inside the assembly place. This 70% can be controlled with adequate lighting, regular security presence, and locked gates and windows. This limits any potential perpetrators to the much more difficult 30%.
There are three kinds of crisis response:
- Evacuation. In an evacuation, you need the people to clear the facilities as soon as they can. This is the first response for practically any crisis. It carries the people out of the danger area, which happens to be the house of worship.
- Lockdown. A lockdown happens when there is a nearby crisis that you have no more time to evacuate from. Lockdown means the people need to actively barricade themselves against physical threat. This can be in offices, behind shelves or desks, or in similar places.
- Shelter-in-place. This means the general facility is locked down and held against an environmental threat (natural or man-made). There is usually more space to move around, compared to in a lockdown.
As long as your Incident Command System and communication plans are laid out, you can already discover and decide which crisis response is appropriate given different scenarios. The responses are different for each house of worship.
It may make some houses of worship feel uncomfortable to run security drills, especially given the welcoming atmosphere they want to have. However, drills are key to swift response in a crisis.
Who should be involved?
- The main religious leader. At the very least, this leader needs to know the general strategies of responding to a crisis. Even if they delegate the operations, they should be seen doing it. People automatically turn to a person in authority to tell them what to do.
- The security staff. The security staff are also likely to be the ones running the drills.
- The general staff. If there are non-security staff who are regularly in the facility, they are also key players. In the absence of some security staff, they can still direct foot traffic.
- Visible religious leaders. If there are other religious leaders that are regularly at the assembly, they also need to know the responses and strategies. Again, they help keep order because panicking people turn to figures of authority.
You can start with tabletop drills to get everyone’s heads in the game, but regular drills in the facility should also be carried out. Everything should be practiced, even what should be announced on social media and what can be said to the press. It’s crucial to buy time for law enforcement and delay the potential threat as long as you can in a crisis.