Mitigating Attacks on Houses of Worship Part 1: Understanding the Problem

by | Facilities, Security

In light of another tragic attack on a church last week, it’s time to have a stark look at and a frank discussion about security at your church. Summer is almost here, which makes it likely there will be a similar attack in the weeks and months ahead. Sadly, attacks on houses of worship are not only a new development, they’ve become so commonplace that the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has prepared a study on the phenomenon, with guidelines on how you can prevent an attack at your church, or how to respond if there is one. The first step, according to the report, is to understand the problem.

How big is the problem?

To compile the report, the agency looked at 37 separate events over the ten-year period from 2009 to 2019. What the data showed was that there was an initial spike in events in 2012, then a consistent increase from 2015 to 2019. The attacks in this period resulted in 64 people dead and 59 other people injured. Five of the attacks qualified as mass shootings. While there is no standard definition of mass shootings, for the interest of the study any shooting involving 4 or more victims met the criteria.

Despite the increase, CISA emphasizes that such attacks remain statistically rare. They state, “Each is a moment of profound trauma to those directly affected and to society at large,” but houses of worship should not be discouraged from providing the vital connections and services they give to their communities every day.

Degree and perspective

The numbers seem scary, and they are, but we need to compare apples to apples. Yes, each violent event is a tragedy and no one wants to have their church attacked, however estimates usually show there are between 350,000 and 400,000 congregations in the United States, spread across all religions. Given that number, 37 violent attacks in 10 years is very very small. Not only is the percentage of facilities getting attacked less than 1 percent, it’s about 1 percent of 1 percent. Even when you consider the 400 + other non-violent hate-related crimes inflicted upon houses of worship in this time (most were vandalism), the number is a tiny portion of the overall number, roughly 1 in 1,000.

While churches of many faiths and denominations have been attacked, the study showed that 67 percent of the attacks were motivated by hatred of a particular racial or religious identity. In addition, 22 percent were connected to a domestic dispute or personal crisis.

Of the 36 known perpetrators in the 37 incidents, 58 percent planned the attack to some degree. These were not spur of the moment acts. They were planned attacks, by people who had a particular problem with the type of people going to a church or the church itself, and the attackers may have had problems in their personal lives. To make matters worse, churches are uniquely vulnerable because they are by their very nature open to the public in every way. To overcome that vulnerability the report states churches can best protect themselves by adopting a comprehensive and multilayered security strategy.

What can we do?

The agency recommends the following broad security actions:
• Identify clear roles and responsibilities for developing and implementing
security measures
• Conduct a vulnerability assessment to understand the risks to your house of
worship
• Build community readiness and resilience by ensuring your house of
worship is aware of potential threats, is prepared to respond in the event of an
emergency or incident, and is connected with the wider community
• Apply physical security measures to monitor and protect the outer, middle,
and inner perimeters, while respecting the purpose of each area of the
house of worship
• Focus on the safety of children with security measures to protect childcare
and daycare facilities and schools
• Implement cybersecurity best practices to safeguard important information
and prevent a potential cyberattack.

It’s not expected that these security options will deter every threat to a house of worship, but a comprehensive security approach offers the best solution to protect your church’s people and property. In addition to preparedness, the agency says it’s key that houses of worship continue to serve their communities, stating they are “a critical part of the social fabric of the United States.”

In the next part of our series, Worship Facility will look at what CISA calls their “Holistic Approach to Security.”

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