Report: Crimes against churches on the rise

Experts discuss the steps worship centers can take to mitigate threats

Hawkins admits that churches are playing a game of catch-up when it comes to security.

"Churches are just soft targets. In the past, they have never had to take some of the measures that every other organization has had to do," Hawkins said. "It's pretty common nowadays, that no matter where you go, you're going to have alarms, cameras, lighting, reinforced locks and things like that, but churches never had to have that before. They are very much behind the curve that we know in the security industry."

According to Frank Santamorena, a principal at security consulting and engineering firm Ducibella Venter & Santore and spokesperson for Church Mutual Insurance Company, houses of worship have historically been lax when it comes to security.

"They rarely ever use alarm systems, they don't use proper security measures to know if a building's secure or even when the last person is gone, they have poor key controls, they leave doors and windows unlocked, cars are left unlocked during services and meetings, I mean there is just a plethora of problems inside of these places," Santamorena said.

When it comes to numbers complied by CSN, however, Santamorena believes they don't vary that greatly from the FBI's statistics and classified them as being normal for what you would expect to find as it relates to crimes against houses of worship.

"Thieves go where there is an opportunity. Whether it is a worship center or anywhere else," Santamorena explained. "What really needs to be addressed is violent acts and other crimes that are really possible like for instance, the use of computers and digital information."

Santamorena said that many of these crimes, such as burglaries, could me mitigated rather quickly by taking several immediate steps which include making unauthorized entry more difficult by locking windows and doors when the building is vacant, trimming trees and shrubs, not leaving ladders lying around, and installing wire mesh fencing.

"Criminals need to work out of sight or in darkness and you can deter them with really good planning and foresight and lighting," he said.

In addition to making these simple security changes, Santamorena added that houses of worship also need to think about implementing security policies and procedures.

"They need to really ask the congregation who has the ability to give them a fundamental understanding of what needs to be put in place?" he said. "Do we have procedures? Do we have policies? Do we have processes? Who's really in charge? If something happens, do we know who's making the 911 call? When you are dealing with terrorism or any other act of violent crime, have you even called any of the emergency management teams around? Have you introduced yourself to any of the FBI agents or the sheriff's department or your local police? Remember, most burglaries, whether it's in a house of worship or anywhere else, are crimes of convenience and they are committed by amateurs."

By not presenting an easy target, Santamorena says that houses of worship can reduce their risk factors for crime. Santamorena also suggests restricting access to a building during low traffic times, implementing key and access card control policies and changing door locks every two-to-three years as a way to mitigate threats. With regards to preventing internal theft, he advises worship centers to conduct background checks on those persons responsible for handling finances and to also make sure that more than one person is on the account and has to sign off on large transactions.

One area that Santamorena believe houses of worship may not be focusing on, but that could have just as devastating effects as property crime is in securing digital data. In many cases, worship center retain such critical data as deposit information on their members, which could have dire consequences if a hacker were to gain access to their computer networks. To prevent this, Santamorena advises worship centers to keep their anti-virus software up to date and to limit their membership directories to name and addresses only. When it's time to replace outdated computers, he says they need to take a sledgehammer to them to protect the personal information inside.