Churches have become a bigger target for thieves over the past several decades as the number of high-value items they possess has increased with the times.
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Jeffrey Hawkins is the founder and executive director of Christian Security Network.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy Jeffrey Hawkins
Earlier this year, Christian Security Network (CSN), an organization dedicated to helping churches and other Christian affiliated facilities become safer and more secure, released a report detailing crimes against Christian organizations in 2010.
The report, which was independently compiled by the organization, shows that many crimes against churches increased between 2009 and 2010. Among the crimes that saw a sharp increase in 2010 were burglary, theft and internal theft, which combined costs churches nearly $20 million in damage.
In this "At the Frontline" interview, CSN Founder and Executive Director Jeffrey Hawkins, who has more than 30 years of security and law enforcement experience, discusses church security trends and the steps that houses of worships need to take to mitigate their risks.
What are some of the biggest security threats facing churches and other Christian facilities today?
It's hard with churches because there is such a lack of information and reporting structure out there that I don't think anybody has a firm grasp on what is the most serious thing that houses of worship are facing. I'm chairman of the ASIS Houses of Worship Security Committee and this was something I founded through ASIS and it is comprised of security people from all different faiths. We're trying to answer those questions right now. What are the biggest threats that houses of worship are facing? We know that every religion has different threats, but we also feel like there are probably some commonalities between all of the different faiths in the United States. There is a much bigger question to this that nobody really has the answer to yet because no one has studied it in depth. In a lot of industries, such as retail or healthcare for example, there are organizations and studies that have been done about crimes in those particular sectors. But really for religious organizations the closest thing we have statistically to look at is the FBI hate crime statistics... and we don't feel they give an accurate portrayal of what's going on crime wise with religious organizations in the United States.
Why are crimes against churches on the rise? Are they seen as an easy mark?
Churches just by their very nature over the past 15 or 20 years have changed. They used to be just brick and mortar buildings with pews and bibles inside. Maybe someone would break in and try to steal cash donations or something else, but churches today are different. Churches today have things in them that any criminal would want such as flat screen TVs, laptop computers, and sound equipment, just all the things from a property crime standpoint that you would think of breaking into an office building or some other type of industry for. But yet churches, because they do have all of those things, they also don't have the security measures that other industries have found to be normal security procedures like always locking doors, keeping their building well lit, and having alarms or security guards. Churches don't have that because they've never had to worry about crime before. The church used to be a sacred place, it's not anymore.
According to the crime report released by CSN earlier this year, the most costly crime perpetrated against churches was from internal theft. What can churches do to mitigate their risks in these areas and is the forgiving nature of the church itself an issue when it comes to these types of crimes?
One of the biggest obstacles that the church has to overcome is that trusting, forgiving nature. What makes a religious group a religious group is that by their very nature they are supposed to be trusting and forgiving, but they need to take the same accounting and check and balances that any other business that handles large or even small amounts of money would. They can't entrust it all in one person. There isn't another business out there that would operate that way and some of these churches are taking in thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars and still don't have the proper checks and balances in place and then they find that people that they've trusted, sometimes even long term staff members or volunteers, have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars. We've found that even so far this year that (internal thefts) are the highest dollar loss crime that churches are experiencing and the average is still between $200,000 and $300,000 per incident (according to CSN's "Crimes Against Christian Organizations in the United States" report). Any investigator or fraud examiner will tell you that the ones you catch are only about 20 percent of what are out there. Most of these crimes go undetected.
With copper thefts taking off again, what can churches do to protect their air conditioning equipment?
They're stealing everything that is made of copper from churches. It's not just the air conditioning units. We've seen them take downspouts, gutters and even copper markings off of gravestones. Somebody even climbed up on top of a church and stole a cross made of copper so they're taking anything made of copper, but air conditioning units are by far the main target. There are several things that churches can do. One is to put a protective cage around the air conditioning unit or units, whether they build it themselves or buy one that is pre-fabricated. Some of the other common things that we recommend are keeping the area well lit and if they do have a CCTV system, to have a camera trained on that area and put up signs saying that the area is under surveillance. There is also a way to hook up your alarm with the unit's Freon line.
Another thing that churches fall down on with regards to copper thefts is meeting with their insurance company and finding out exactly what is covered and what is not covered if they do have such a loss. We're seeing churches lose as much as $60,000 in these air conditioning unit thefts and then they find out that it's either not covered or they have a really, really high deductible because air conditioning units aren't considered part of the building. Security is never 100 percent so if you do have a loss you want to make sure your church policy is going to cover it.
What are churches doing as it relates to ever growing problem of data and cyber security?
We haven't seen it happen at the rate that it is happening in other industries or sectors. We believe it will probably happen sooner or later, but churches, while they carry a lot personal data on their congregation, they don't carry a lot of banking or credit card information. That will probably change because many churches are now accepting things like online donations or even electronic units that people can use to give their donations in the church instead of handing over cash or a check. As technology enters into the religious environment you can bet that cybercrime will follow.
Despite their open nature, do you envision churches adopting more sophisticated security systems in the future such as enterprise-wide access control and surveillance systems?
There are some churches out there that have already started heading in that direction, installing IP-addressable cameras and starting to talk about integration of even facial recognition programs because of sex offenders or people that have been known to cause problems or things like that. Most churches deal with children, Sunday school or classes or things of that nature and the technology end of it is really starting to become an important aspect of their environment. Churches are just really breaking into that technology now, but if they are going to keep their open and inviting feeling without putting up metal detectors and gates and things like that, they are going to have to start using things like video analytics, optical facial recognition and card access control in the future. And we're trying to educate them now on what that actually entails.