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A Sanctuary Secured: 7 Essential Steps

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W&O is providing a blog series aimed at equipping religious organizations with safety resources. As the second article in our series on church safety and security, it is an honor and pleasure to publish the following guest blog from Simon Osamoh, who is an expert in this field. His article uniquely provides tangible and practical steps to securing houses of worship from a wide spectrum of threats.

Simon Osamoh serves as the editor of an online newsletter, Security Connections, and is nationally recognized for his work in safeguarding houses of worship. He began his career in England, spending 14 years as a detective specializing in serious and organized crime, In the US, he then led Counter Terrorism at the Mall of America in Minnesota. Simon founded Kingswood Security Consulting and the Worship Security Academy, providing security solutions to houses of religious worship. He is the author of two Amazon bestselling books and the host of the Worship Security Academy podcast.

In the sanctuaries where people seek solace and spiritual connection, an unsettling trend has emerged. Sacred spaces have been marred by an increasing wave of crimes, particularly gun violence, underscoring an urgent need for vigilance and preparedness. From the tragic shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a lone gunman claimed seven lives in 2012, to the 2015 heartbreaking massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine lives were taken during a bible study - the list of violence at churches grows long.

These incidents, along with many others reveal a grim pattern of violence invading places of worship. The threats extend beyond these acts of mass violence. Leaders must also navigate challenges such as embezzlement, assault, theft, sexual sin, and the nuances of managing mental health and medical emergencies, each adding layers of complexity to the already daunting task of securing a house of worship.

In this landscape of heightened risk, the role of church safety and security leaders has become more critical than ever. But where does one begin in the face of such overwhelming responsibility?

Consider the story of Karen, the Operations Director at a large Catholic Church in California. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of her task and bombarded with well-intentioned advice from peers, she found herself at a crossroads, searching for clarity and direction in safeguarding her congregation. A transformative approach emerged, with the power of a structured, step-by-step system derived from the wisdom of those who have navigated these treacherous waters.

This revelation led to the development of a seven-step plan designed to demystify church security, providing a clear roadmap to enhance safety without succumbing to stress and overwhelm. Karen's journey from confusion to establishing a leading program in church safety serves as a beacon of hope for others. Leaders can thereby be equipped with the knowledge and tools to not only safeguard religious sanctuaries but to do so with confidence and peace of mind.

Step 1 - Build A Strong Security Culture

The cornerstone of any effective security program lies in cultivating a strong security culture. School districts may have secured millions in taxpayer funds for robust security upgrades, such as bullet-resistant doors and 3M safety film. Yet, many schools also prop open doors, meaning these investments become worthless.

This principle is even more crucial within church communities, where the prevailing message and theology often emphasize maintaining an "open door" sanctuary. This well-intentioned but potentially risky stance can inadvertently undermine security efforts. The successful implementation of any security program hinges on a deep understanding of the existing security culture among church leaders, board members, and volunteers.

Creating a resilient security culture begins with open dialogue. Engage with religious leaders to grasp their perspectives on security. How do their views align? Are they supportive of, or resistant to, proposed safety measures? This initial step is critical in ensuring that a security vision is not only understood but embraced by those at the helm of a religious organization’s spiritual and community leadership. Training plays an important role in fostering a security-conscious culture. Educating teams and volunteers on how to respond to various scenarios not only empowers them but also instills a proactive stance toward promoting safety.

Step 2 - Build A Threat Assessment Team

In the pursuit of fortifying houses of worship, assembling a threat assessment team stands as a pivotal step. The paradigm within today's security landscape has evolved; we no longer merely ask if a person has made a threat. Instead, we delve deeper, questioning if a person poses a threat.

Utilizing a threat assessment approach fosters discernment as to whether an individual’s behavior is indicative of a potential path to violence and, crucially, how to intervene or disrupt this trajectory. This preemptive strategy is instrumental in preventing incidents before they occur. To be optimally effective, this team must be multidisciplinary, drawing on a wide range of expertise to provide a holistic assessment of potential threats. Ideally, especially for larger organizations, the team should include mental health practitioners, law enforcement officers, counselors, religious leaders, and individuals from church operations or facilities management. Additionally, if a church has a designated security leader, their involvement is invaluable.

A team’s diverse composition ensures that various perspectives and areas of expertise are considered, enabling a comprehensive evaluation of any situation that may arise. When concerning behavior is identified, indicating a potential for violence, the team convenes to meticulously gather facts, conduct interviews, and assess the risk posed by an individual's concerning behavior.

Step 3 - Protection of Your Perimeter

The core of physical security fundamentals is the protection of a facility’s perimeter, which extends beyond church doors to include areas like the parking lot. Ensuring that volunteers tasked with directing traffic are vigilant and trained to recognize suspicious behavior is crucial. They serve as the first line of defense, capable of identifying individuals whose actions deviate from the norm before these individuals even set foot inside the church.

A common oversight observed in many houses of worship is the practice of stationing greeters at doors only to have them depart once services commence. To address this gap, we adopt a policy of “Worship at one, serve at another,” emphasizing the importance of maintaining a secure presence at all church access points throughout the duration of services. Encouraging volunteers to participate in multiple services, one to fulfill their worship needs and another to contribute to the church’s security efforts, can maintain this vigilance without compromising their personal spiritual experience. Effective perimeter protection involves not just having someone at the door but having individuals who are actively engaged in greeting and screening, ready to report any unusual activities they observe.

Step 4 - Conduct A Security Risk Assessment

The fourth step in bolstering the houses of worship security involves a comprehensive evaluation of organizational vulnerabilities through a security risk assessment. This critical phase aims to scrutinize various facets of an organization's security posture, beginning with administrative vulnerabilities. Such vulnerabilities might include the frequency of background checks for staff and volunteers, the presence of a high-risk termination policy, and the robustness of money handling procedures.

The assessment then shifts focus towards the physical security measures in place, encompassing doors, locks, windows, and the adequacy of lighting elements that form the first line of defense against unauthorized entry and potential threats. The final aspect under review is the security technology supporting an organization’s security efforts, with key components like mass notification systems, access control measures for doors, and effective lighting in parking areas to enhance visibility and deter criminal activity.

For houses of worship, engaging a professional security risk assessment conducted by a physical security expert offers significant advantages. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has facilitated the enhancement of security measures for non-profit organizations through the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP). This initiative allows non-profits to apply for up to $150,000 per location for security enhancements who have had a risk assessment completed.

Step 5 - Build An Emergency Operations Plan

The fifth stride in fortifying a house of worship's safety involves creating an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP). This plan encapsulates strategies to tackle natural disasters, human-caused disturbances, and technological threats. Identifying these potential emergencies is the first step in formulating a plan that outlines specific actions for your congregation and staff to follow, ensuring everyone knows their role during critical moments.

The effectiveness of an EOP hinges not just on its creation but on its practical application. Engage your church in regular drills and tabletop exercises to test the plan's viability, making adjustments based on real-world feedback. Considering professional assistance in developing your EOP can provide valuable expertise, tailoring your plan to address specific risks effectively. This step is about more than preparation; it involves creating a culture of readiness within your church, ensuring a calm and coordinated response in times of crisis.

Step 6 - Conduct Security Training

Training is the linchpin in enhancing a house of worship’s security posture. Identifying who needs training is a key first task. This includes anyone in a role that frequently encounters risk. Those working with children, youth workers, ushers, greeters, volunteers, facility staff, front desk personnel, and maintenance teams. These individuals are often on the front lines and can play a pivotal role in early threat detection and response. Training staff and volunteers in key areas such as enhancing situational awareness, conflict de-escalation techniques, preparedness for active shooter scenarios, identification and reporting of suspicious activities, and fundamentals of threat assessment ensures that an organization can significantly strengthen its security framework.

Step 7 - Build a Response Team

The culmination of building a secure environment for any house of worship is the formation of a dedicated Response Team. This team is the practical embodiment of all the preparatory work you've done, from establishing a robust security culture and policies to comprehensive training programs. Selecting an appropriate leader for the team, deeply integrated into the organization’s culture and embodying a servant's heart, is paramount. Training these individuals in the organization’s policies, how to respond to violence, manage medical situations, and de-escalate conflicts is crucial. Conducting interviews with potential volunteers ensures that each member not only possesses the necessary skills but also aligns with the organization’s culture and the vision for the team. Establishing clear expectations from the outset is vital for the team's functionality and success.

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