It may be unthinkable, but houses of worship can become targets of crime and violence.
|Cpt. Scott Frank, left, with the Wood County Sheriff's Office speaking to a group Saturday morning. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
And, while often slow to respond to such threats, churches and other places of faith should be ready.
"If we can do an annual checkup on our church needs, our church security, I don't think that's not having faith in God," said Chief Deputy Eric Reynolds of the Wood County Sheriff's Office during a 'Protecting Places of Worship' training held Saturday at Dayspring Assembly of God. "I think that's what God wants us to do."
More than 100 church leaders and staff members from throughout Northwest Ohio attended the day-long program.
The training was led by Capt. Scott Frank of the Sheriff's Office.
"Everyone here is probably at a different point when it comes to safety and security of your places of worship," he said.
That spectrum of readiness became clear early-on when, during introductions, some church representatives indicated that they had been in the process of safety development for years, while others quipped they had made few security considerations beyond locks on their doors.
"When I talk to some pastors, I still get the 'it won't happen here' mentality," said Frank, explaining that, on average, only one in five churches have a plan in place.
"We need to make sure we're on the forefront of this very important issue."
Places of worship in Wood County have not been immune to violent crime. Most notably, in September of 2012 the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, in Perrysburg Township, was the victim of an arson that closed the site for months and did more than $1 million in damage. Randolph Linn, 53, St. Joe, Ind., who was found guilty of hate crimes in the incident, is seeking to have his guilty plea overturned in federal court.
Statistics across the country are sobering. Since 1999, there have been 679 deadly force incidents in places of worship nationwide.
Frank acknowledged that some churches are slow to develop a safety and security plan due to a number of factors, including fears about cost, liability, and concerns that the process may be overwhelming.
"The question of liability is, do you want to be liable for starting a program, putting your best foot forward, or do you want to be liable for doing absolutely nothing?"
However, throughout the day Frank did emphasize the importance of discussing security plans and other measures with legal counsel and insurance providers.
Of major importance, he said, is communication with the congregation about the safety planning process.
"I contend, get your congregation involved," said Frank. "I don't think they're going to be scared. I don't think they're going to be reluctant."
Cross-communication between ministry leaders is also important.
He advocated for making safety and security an actual ministry within the place of worship, and ensuring that the project has the support of church leadership.
Frank noted that "safety" needs to be emphasized alongside "security." The issue is not only about a violent intruder or active shooter, but other potential - and more common - concerns like fires, accidents, injuries, vehicle and travel safety, and weather and mechanical emergencies.
|People listen to Cpt. Scott Frank, with the Wood County Sheriff's Office, speak Saturday morning.
To start a plan, Frank said churches need to undertake a risk assessment, and revisit it twice per year. Four main areas should be considered: Property, Programs, Plans/Procedures, and People. For instance, go room to room, he said, and examine the facilities. Also important are evacuation plans, and photographs documenting the property assessment, and even alarm and security camera systems.
Churches should also determine if they offer programs that could pose potential risks, and review current plans and procedures. Children's ministries, for example, is one important area of focus.
"If your staff does not know CPR or choking first aid, that's a concern, because that's something that a reasonable parent, or a reasonable member of your congregation, can expect."
Also valuable: mentally reviewing the congregation for people who may pose potential problems.
"Knowing your congregation is critical," said Frank. "We understand some of the personalities of the people who walk through our doors," he said of the security team at his church.
"That's due diligence," Frank continued, saying later "you have to know who's attending."
Inviting and involving first responders, like law enforcement and fire departments, in the planning process and the safety team, is very valuable.
"We need to be on the same page."
Response plans, procedures and communication strategies taking into account potential issues - such as evacuation, shelter-in-place, and violent intruders - should also be created. Such plans won't cover all issues, but can provide preferred actions.
"Don't get overwhelmed by this process," Frank said. "A plan is better than no plan."
One area of controversy was whether or not to permit concealed-carry firearms within a church, whether by members of the congregation at-large, or by the safety team. Under the Ohio Revised Code, carrying such weapons is prohibited in places of worship, unless specifically permitted by the church itself.
Frank said that the question should not be who is allowed to carry, but instead "who do you allow to use deadly force in your place of worship?"
"We have to make sure that we understand the end of the equation."
Churches, he said, should have a use of force policy in place for their team, and consult with their legal counsel and insurance provider on the matter. Law enforcement can also be of help on the subject.
"This is a prayerful decision that each of you have to make," he said, adding later "if you're going to make the decision to allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon, make sure you do your due diligence."
When creating a safety and security team, Frank said that reference and criminal history checks should be done, including out-of-state-checks.
"Have an interview process. Sit them down," he said. The team, once formed, should train on a number of possible scenarios, including with law enforcement.