Report: Crimes against churches on the rise

Earlier this month, Christian Security Network, 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, "Crimes against Christian Organizations in the United States -2010," 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. Though it only increased slightly in 2010, incidents of arson were also costly to churches nationwide, inflicting more than $3 million in damage, according to the report.

While the Federal Bureau of Investigation tracks crimes against churches and other houses of worship in its annual report on hate crime statistics, CSN Executive Director Jeffrey Hawkins says they don't accurately reflect all of the crimes that occur against Christian organizations. According to the FBI's hate crime statistics for 2009, 1,376 hate crimes were motivated by religious bias. Of those crimes, 70.1 percent were anti-Jewish, 9.3 were anti-Islamic, 4 percent were anti-Catholic, and 2.9 percent were anti-Protestant. The other 13 percent of crimes that were motivated by a religious bias were against another religion or multiple religions.

Hawkins, who also serves as manager of security management outreach for American Military University, said that there was such a disparity between these hate crime statistics and raw data from the U.S. Justice Department on crimes that occurred on church property that CSN decided to compile its own figures.

"We verify every incident that happens, either through a news source, a police blog or some other credible source," Hawkins explained. "So, the 1,783 incidents we reported for 2010 and the 1,237 the year before, we verify every single incident."

Hawkins added that even CSN's crime figures are conservative and that the underreporting of crimes against churches is troubling in and of itself.

"There are a far greater number of property crimes than we could ever track, so what strikes us is that there is such a problem and that it's so underreported, both in terms of what the government reports and really in terms of what the media reports," Hawkins said.

According to the report, the most financially damaging crime against churches in 2010 was internal theft, which cost churches more than $15 million. To help prevent this, Hawkins recommends that churches implement the financial safeguards that any other business would.

"I think the problem that churches have is (they have) kind of a trust everybody mentality and we see this even in terms of doing background checks on people and everything else. These thefts are being committed by everyone from the church leadership down to the volunteer treasurer. There really isn't any one position that stands out," he said. "The average amount for these (thefts), over the past couple of years, have ranged from $200,000 to $300,000 per occurrence.

One of the challenges for churches, according to Hawkins, is that they are different from other businesses and organizations in that they are not out to catch and prosecute those who have committed a crime against them. Oftentimes, they want to help someone that has been caught trying to break into their facilities.

"A church wants to be seen as doing good not for being the victim of crime, especially if the crime is an internal crime." Hawkins explained.

In addition to internal theft, burglaries were another costly crime for churches in 2010. The CSN report tallied 970 burglaries at churches in 2010, resulting in more than $2 million in damage.

"Churches have great things to steal that they haven't had in the past 20 or 30 years. They have got laptops, flat screen TVs, sound equipment and music boards, those are the kinds of things we are seeing being stolen out of churches during a burglary," Hawkins said.

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.

While some of these tips may prove useful in helping worship centers guard against property crimes, Santamorena says acts of violence or terrorism are more difficult to prepare for.

"These violent acts are really impossible to predict and prevent," he said. "The one thing you can do though is establish an incident response protocol so you know what to do if an incident occurs. This should include procedures for evacuations and lockdowns. Routes and meeting places should be established. Can you even lock off areas inside your facility like classrooms or a daycare? You've got think about things like first aid and who is trained to provide it. You should have some form of communication procedures."