Just over three years ago I established the Safety Officer Team at my church. No one asked me to do this, I realized the need for this after reading an article about the number of shooting deaths in churches. From 1999 to 2007, 41 people died in churches from gunfire. This does not include violent deaths at church-related camps or other properties nor does it include violent deaths by means other than guns (such as the poisoning of the church coffee pot in a New Hampshire church that killed one person). This figure does not include the scores of people wounded in shootings such as the two pastors wounded in September 2011 in a church in Florida.
Churches used to be considered sanctuaries (in every sense of the word). Churches are no longer immune from violence. Instead, churches must be proactive in protecting their facilities when so many people are present. Churches can do this in several ways:
- Volunteers - these are typically members of the church who have had or are currently police officers.
- I discourage the use of members of the military. I greatly respect members of the armed forces, but typically they are trained to shoot first and ask questions later; police are trained to ask questions first and shoot only as a last resort.
- Members who have neither police nor military training could be a risk the church should not take. My "risk-management hat" tells me that some untrained members may be either trigger-happy or trigger-reluctant and either situation can put people at risk.
- Police (current or former officers) are probably the best way to go because of their training. This also gives police officer members of the church the opportunity to give back to their church using their professional training - something that many of them want to do but have never been asked to do.
- Off-Duty Paid Officers - This is the best form of protection but it is also the most expensive. These officers can be either in uniform or in plain clothes or a combination.
- Some churches use traffic officers to help with getting cars out of the parking lot; those officers are the first line of protection for a church. Someone bent on harm may see a traffic cop and choose another, less guarded, site and bypass your location.
- High profile ministers usually have an officer that is assigned to be with the minister to ensure no one causes harm to him or his family while the minister is on the church's campus.
- Paid plain clothes officers are usually used in large churches where an officer's presence is needed in a worship environment but where the church members do not need to be alarmed by the number of police.
- Sometimes a church will learn of a threat against a minister or the church itself. You need to decide how you'll address that threat and there isn't an easy answer. Every threat needs to be addressed individually.
- Do you ignore it? A foolish action (in my book)
- Do you bring in only volunteers? A good move but not far enough
- Do you bring in paid officers in uniform? That is a great move but it does have consequences. The person making the threat may see the officer and decide to postpone the attack nor even cancel it. It may also alarm church members who are not used to seeing a uniformed officer.
- Do you bring in a paid undercover officer? That is also a great move. It will not alarm church members but it does have the drawback in that the person causing the threat may continue with his (or her) attack.
- Combination of volunteers and paid officers - This is probably the most efficient and effective method.
- It is an efficient use of church funds by using volunteers inside the church and a paid traffic officer. When (not if) there is a threat or there is a perceived need for increased vigilance, additional paid officers can be brought in.
- It is effective in that the first line of defense is always the most visible officer - the traffic cop in the parking lot.
- This is the way that I've gone to - I like and it works quite well. We've weathered 2 intentional threats and the heightened security around 9/11/2011.
Below are the Safety Officer Guidelines that I created for my volunteer officers. My regular paid officer sees these guidelines, too. By the way, as my way of thanking them for their service, I meet with them once a year (the only official meeting I have with them). I invite them all, volunteer and paid officers, to lunch and I pick up the tab. I want them to get to know each other so that all the good guys to know each other - some churches are so large that police from different jurisdictions have never met each other. Take your volunteer officers to lunch - they'll enjoy it, you can take the opportunity to acknowledge and express appreciation for their community service, everyone will get to know each other better and you can remind them of why they are so needed and vital to the church.
Safety Officer Guidelines
- The purpose of the Safety Officers for our church is for passive not active threat assessments leading to actions only if absolutely necessary. Passive action means observing individuals but not approaching or engaging the individual unless a specific threat is noticed.
- Only trained law enforcement (present, former, or retired) should be included as a Safety Officer of our church.
- Safety Officers may carry weapons on church grounds but that is typically not necessary.
- Safety Officers may wear uniforms but that is not typically necessary.
- Safety Officers must know who else is a member in order to assist or recognize another officer during a crisis.
- Whenever a Safety Officer is present at the church, he/she must consider him/herself to be “on duty” and available to respond.
- Safety Officers must be aware of individuals who have the potential to harm others. If a Safety Officer notices an individual believed to be a threat to others, he/she should approach the individual to determine the danger. If the danger is real, then the Safety Officer.
- Should summon on-duty officers (call 911)
- Maintain personal or visual contact of the individual until on-duty officers arrive
- Attempt to get other Safety Officers to help with the situation
- As a last resort, escort the individual out of the building if the person becomes disruptive
- Safety Officers should be aware that many times dangerous individuals want to gain a reputation or fame for themselves and their actions. The most prominent person in the church, and thus the most likely single target, is the senior pastor. If a Safety Officer notices an individual approaching the pastor during the worship service, the officer should walk forward to see if he/she can be of assistance.
- During the music – pastor may be approached by staff trying to tell the pastor some emergency. Only rarely will anyone else approach him.
- During the sermon – this is a high visibility time for an individual wanting to gain fame. Only rarely will anyone else be on the platform
- During the “altar call” – this time is when the pastor is most vulnerable since people are encouraged to come to him. Someone dangerous could get within inches of the pastor and not draw any attention.
- Safety Officers should not draw attention to themselves or their position unless a threat is imminent.
- Safety Officers should get to know each other and the church-hired traffic officer.
- The work of Safety Officers will go entirely unnoticed and unrecognized by the church. But please know that those people who are aware of your work greatly appreciate your service. It helps the staff and church do its work with peace of mind – thank you!