“Times have changed and you have to change with them.”
That is Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention Lt. Robert Andrews’ blunt, urgent message about church safety.
Andrews presented safety outlines to the Faith-Based Alliance in Manatee on Tuesday, along with a hard reality: “Houses of worship are soft targets. A lot of times people come to church in some sort of distress. When you think about that and some of the people you have probably seen on the property, think about what could have gone wrong — and then have a plan.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security lists places of worship in the top five at-risk organizations for their vulnerability to potential acts of violence. Some churches have implemented security teams, but Andrews said 75 percent of places of worship polled out of 4,000 said there is no security in place, and 22 percent of those still believe security isn’t necessary.
MCSO offers free site security surveys to both residents and commercial establishments. Police will come and evaluate your vulnerabilities and existing security if in place, and provide a confidential report to help. Call 941-747-3011 ext. 2500 to schedule the site survey.
In the meantime, there are realities to face. There are ways to prevent a potential act of violence just by being more aware of who is entering the place of worship. Andrews acknowledged that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to stop some level of violence from occurring.
“But you can mitigate loss of life,” he said.
Most security professionals concur that places of worship must be prepared to react to a negative occurrence.
Lt. Robert Andrews, MCSO Crime Prevention
Pastor Bill Pierson of J.O.Y. Fellowship has been pushing his fellow worship leaders to take the subject seriously.
“I haven’t gotten too far because of the mindset that it’s not going to happen here,” he said. “We are told to keep ourselves prepared and we are not doing a good job of it. Like the opioid problem, churches just shy away from it.”
Andrews said it’s not just active shooter situations that are plaguing churches. There are groups of criminals who travel on worship days and target church parking lots to break in or steal vehicles. The most common crimes against churches are burglary, robbery, assault and vandalism. Increasing physical security options are the easiest way to prevent these crimes.
Having security watch the parking lot, video surveillance, lighting and ensuring the property is visible from the road are all important steps. For more serious situations, Andrews said to have a plan in place and train, train and train some more.
“As a church, you want to be open and inviting, but you also want security restricting access,” Andrews said. “It’s a difficult balance to strike, but you have to be proactive. Most security professionals concur that places of worship must be prepared to react to a negative occurrence. Have a procedure in place and know how to respond to those incidents.”
We are told to keep ourselves prepared and we are not doing a good job of it.
Pastor Bill Pierson, J.O.Y. Fellowship
In the case of an active shooter situation, there are only three options. Escape if you can, hide out of sight of the shooter or fight back with anything and everything you can get your hands on to use as a weapon.
“I look around this room and I see all kinds of improvised weapons,” Andrews said. “I see chairs, tables, fire extinguishers and even a broom in the corner. We don’t want to think about all of this at church where it’s supposed to be peaceful but it comes down to your mindset.
“Are you going to sit back and say it’s never going to happen here or are you going to be proactive?” he asked. “Do you have lockdown procedures? If so, do those responsible really know what to do? If your church has a daycare, what are the barriers to those children? Critical safety and security begins now.”