Mass shooting shines spotlight on church security

June 23, 2015
Experts discuss the steps houses of worship can take to better protect themselves

Last week’s shooting massacre that left nine people dead at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., horrified the nation and instantly raised questions about the adequacy of security at houses of worship across the nation. Similar to schools and hospitals, churches have to maintain a delicate balance between having an open and inviting environment with reducing their risks to not only worst-case scenarios like active shooters, but also more common types of everyday threats such as property crimes and assaults.

While some churches have discussed the possibility of hiring guards or off-duty police officers as a way to mitigate their risks, some believe that churches, by and large, will not change their security practices as a result of this shooting. Jeffrey Hawkins, a security consultant who specializes in houses of worship, said that many churches just simply do not take security as seriously as they should.

“There is always a sudden interest in security and safety in churches after something like this happens, but we have very short-term memories of these types of incidents unfortunately,” said Hawkins. “I think most churches will go with the old (attitude) of, ‘It’ll never happen here’ or ‘it won’t happen to us’ and they won’t do anything to change their security.”

Hawkins, who has worked with numerous pastors and congregations in both rural and urban settings in every corner of the country, said that these types of attitudes are prevalent everywhere in the Christian church. In a sense, Hawkins added that the prospect of bolstering security in churches runs counter to their culture of faith and welcoming everyone with open arms.

However, while these cultural norms are difficult, if not impossible, to change, the proper balance between openness and security can be achieved. Some of the changes that churches can immediately make to improve their security posture are as simple as locking doors and running proper background checks on staff members and volunteers.   

“I tell a lot of churches that they don’t have to leave their doors open all the time, especially if they are in a high crime rate area. You don’t have to leave all of the doors unlocked and you can have someone in a security capacity greet people at the door, find out what they are there for and let them in,” Hawkins said. “We know, as security professionals, that sometimes just the mere presence of having somebody in a security role might be enough to deter someone from doing something.”

Patrick Fiel, owner of PVF Security Consulting LLC, said that some churches he’s worked with through the years feel “uncomfortable” locking their doors as they want to make sure it is open to everyone in the community. He suggests that churches have someone conduct a physical security assessment of their facility and put an action plan in place that covers every possible emergency scenario and clearly explains everyone’s role in it.

“That’s what a lot of churches have failed to do,” said Fiel. “Each church is unique and has its own challenges and there are many factors to consider. We can’t do a cookie cutter here because based on the age of the church, the size, the design, and even the location makes a big difference as to the types of protocols you put in place.”   

Additionally, Fiel believes many crimes that take place at churches go underreported as they don’t want people to feel unsafe when they come there to worship. “They don’t want to take away that openness… and they want to have that open arms feel,” said Fiel.  

Although many houses of worship may be fundamentally opposed to implementing some of these recommendations, Hawkins said that he has worked with a number of ministers and other church officials who have taken a forward-thinking approach to security. The task of collaborating with fellow churches and getting everyone on the same page, however, remains a big challenge.  

“I’ve heard from a lot of pastors and ministers that are very proactive and are very concerned about security,” said Hawkins. “I’ve also heard a lot of frustration from churches that try to organize other churches in their area to do training, discuss security and things like that and they get very little response. It’s very frustrating to them because they understand security is needed for their church, but they also understand that security is needed for all the churches and sometimes they can’t even get cooperation from neighboring churches.”

As with any organization, both Fiel and Hawkins recommend that churches install basic security technology, such as video surveillance, access control and intrusion detection, as a way to mitigate risk. It is also paramount that these systems be professionally installed to ensure that they work properly when needed.

“A lot of churches don’t even have (these systems) deployed properly. Many of the alarms and CCTV systems that I’ve seen in churches when I’ve done risk assessments aren’t even working, not working properly or they may not be up to date with the latest technology,” explained Hawkins. “They may have a secretary who sits alone in the church by herself during the week and often they are victims of robbery, sexual assault or even homicide, and they don’t have things like panic buttons that are hooked up to the alarm system at their disk that they can press to summon help.”

Fiel also emphasized that churches should not solely rely on implementing technology as a substitute for taking a comprehensive look at their security posture.

“We can always put cameras in place and we can always install access control, but if you don’t have policies and procedures and best practices, it is going to be ineffective,” added Fiel. “What I find in the industry is that, ‘We’re going to put a Band-Aid on the problem,’ and we don’t want to do that.

Hawkins believes that these types of incidents are going to continue to occur in churches and that it will take a major terror attack for them to really wake up to the threats they face.

“I believe that attacks are going to increase and I think based on what we’re seeing in the Middle East with terrorists groups going after people of Christian faith, I don’t think it is going to be too long before they start targeting Christian churches and ministries here in the United States,” concluded Hawkins. “That’s going to be the big game changer because it isn’t going to be some 21-year-old racist that decides to target an African-American church, it’s going to be a coordinated ISIS attack that’s going to target a church or ministry somewhere and there are going to be many more casualties.”  

About the Author

Joel Griffin | Editor-in-Chief,

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of, a business-to-business news website published by Endeavor Business Media that covers all aspects of the physical security industry. Joel has covered the security industry since May 2008 when he first joined the site as assistant editor. Prior to SecurityInfoWatch, Joel worked as a staff reporter for two years at the Newton Citizen, a daily newspaper located in the suburban Atlanta city of Covington, Ga.