As Salaamu Alaikum – Peace be upon you – and hello to all my fellow human beings.
Last night my husband and I attended a training session called “Securing the Faithful”. This session was sponsored by the Spotsylvania County Virginia Sheriff’s Department and Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg Virginia.
This course was immensely informative, and before I get into the details, I would like to thank First Sergeant Shaun D. Jones, Senior Deputy William E. Lee, and Germanna Chief of Police Craig Branch for leading this effort. First Sergeant Jones presented the session. In addition, Commonwealth’s Attorney William F. Neely went over personal crimes laws for our area to help us know what constitutes illegal behavior.
The session consisted of a PowerPoint presentation that basically hit all the high points of security for our houses of worship. The session gave a broad overview and in about two hours it covered a lot of ground; many of the major points can themselves take up enough time to be a totally separate class when taken in detail.
First Sergeant Jones hit us with a lot of statistics but livened up the dry facts with real-life examples. We learned that 60% of crimes happen at 10% of locations, so there definitely are certain places that have a higher risk of crime. He told us that we can reduce crime by 80% if we are properly prepared.
Crimes around houses of worship are varied. They range from theft involving the outside of the property (copper pipes, outside building materials, lighting fixtures), theft inside the building such as sound equipment, cash, or personal property, to arson, financial crimes, and crimes related to domestic violence.
Most houses of worship tend to have a bit of a naive attitude: We are here serving God, so we are not going to be tested. This is simply untrue and a very dangerous attitude to have. First Sergeant Jones asked us if we took measures to secure property, such has having parking lot lights, security cameras, not giving everyone a key, or making note of the make, model, and serial numbers of equipment in the building. Most of us were unable to raise our hands. This lack of preparation not only makes us more likely to be targets, but it hinders police in their efforts to investigate crimes and identify perpetrators.
Sadly, we know that houses of worship can be sites for homicides, suicides, or racially or religiously based hate crimes. Between 2011 and 2015 there were 600 deaths nationwide at religious facilities. Most people don’t like to think about this, but we have to.
Okay. That’s the overview. I’m going to hit the high points here, mostly taken from the PowerPoint slides that I snapped photos of during the session. This will be a bit disorganized and not detailed, but it will give you an idea of the questions you must ask when you are trying to determine if your house of worship is prepared.
First of all, the “ahead of time” stuff. You need to have a floor plan of your HOW (takes too long to write out house of worship every time) for first responders. Our masjid is a simple one-room affair but many HOW’s serve as community centers and have classes, a kitchen, multi-story floor plans, and outbuildings. Police need to have this information easily available when they arrive on scene. You can print out copies of your floor plan, laminate them, and keep a set in the office, a set with a board member, and securely online.
What shape is your property in? Is the building secure? Locks, windows, blinds so no one can see in at night, landscaping not offering places for people to hide, parking lot lights, security system with hi-res cameras (you can find these at Costco for about $500) and a recording device.
Calling tree or list of people to call in the event of some issue. You need to have the numbers for the pastor / rabbi / imaam, etc., the office manager, the board members, the person who knows the alarm code, and anyone else who can help in the event of an emergency. This information needs to be in the hands of several people in case the usual contacts are out of town or not able to be contacted.
Do you have a security team? I remember when I lived in Falls Church, Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center had a full cadre of male and female security people who helped with traffic, helped people get to the right place, kept people out of the wrong places, and just basically kept an eye on everything. If you are a small place, you still need to have people who are in charge of security and who have been trained in first aid and in how to look for suspicious people. These can be volunteers from the community.
Do you have an exit strategy? What is your procedure in the case of fire, broken pipes, a mentally ill person storming through the front door? Is there someone assigned to check bathrooms, classrooms, etc.? Where is your safe meeting place once the building has been evacuated?
This is an important one: SCREEN VOLUNTEERS AND STAFF. You do not want to invite a predator into your midst. Volunteers need to be screened. This protects the HOW from accusations of abuse if you allow someone in who is, say, a child predator, and protects them from having a thief in charge of the charity box, etc. First Sergeant Jones advised us not to use the cheapest company to do background checks as they could miss important information.
Does your HOW have a website? Do you put too much information on the website? If someone knows that there is never anyone there on Thursday night, they might pick that night to rob the place. Or if they know you are having a major fundraiser on Saturday, they might think that’s a good time to come and relieve you of the charity box.
Are you covering controversial topics on your website? You can attract haters if you are discussing hot-button issues online. Do you have photos or other identifying information about your staff? This could make it easier for a stalker to target someone.
What are your money-handling procedures? You should always have at least two and better than that at least three people handling money, such as counting donations, and do so in a secure room. Money must be accounted for to the penny, documented, and secured. Avoid going to the bank at the same time every day and vary your path to the bank. Consider online donations – I had a nice chat with a member of the Jewish community and he said they don’t have any cash at all in the synagogue. Everything is done online. This is not always possible but it can reduce the risk.
Do you have code words for security to let them know there is an issue without causing panic? For instance, if there is a person who has been previously banned and you see him in the parking lot, can you quietly text or call someone to let them know to call police and not disturb worshipers?
Do you have a policy for firearms? Virginia allows concealed carry with a permit, but since HOWs are private property, you can ban them for everyone with the exception of trained security who can be allowed to carry at your discretion.
This gives a really basic overview of the issues protecting the physical property and basic safety procedures. First Sergeant Jones then moved to discussion how to keep yourself safe when working in outreach. Much of what we do in the community takes place outside the walls of our HOW. There are food pantries, classes, and counseling sessions. How do we stay safe when we reach out? Very importantly, how do we protect our leaders from false accusations that can come about with home visits?
If the pastor / imaam/ rabbi, etc., has to go visit someone, for instance, a man having a mental crisis, he should make sure his phone is fully charged, should tell someone where he is going, have a set time to be there and leave, and let his contact know when he goes. If there is any danger of a physical confrontation, such as a suicidal parishioner, he should contact law enforcement and not try to “go it alone”.
For events away from the HOW, such as a community outreach table at a college or a fun day at the park, there should also be a plan for security and safety for visitors. What to do if the bounce house collapses or a tent blows away? Who will monitor the parking lot? Who will secure any money or property on the site?
There are all sorts of issues related to outreach and dealing with people who may be addicts or mentally ill. We absolutely want to help everyone we can and not turn away the downtrodden, but at the same time we have to have procedures in place that protect counselors, volunteers, congregants, and property. We should make sure that visitors and strangers are not able to move freely throughout the entire facility and those with issues such as drug addiction or mental illness are escorted at all times to keep them and others safe. An addict who sees an expensive sound system might try to come back to steal it if he is in dire need of money for drugs. Keep the temptation away as you do your outreach.
There can be a threat of domestic violence at our HOAs. Imagine that an abused woman has an order of protection against her spouse and he comes onto the property. How do you deal with that?
In this day and age, racial hatred and religious bias can make any HOW a target. Mosques, synagogues, churches, temples – no one is immune to the breakdown of society that has sent so many on a violent path. We need to have WRITTEN policies and procedures in place to anticipate the unthinkable and to be as prepared as possible. We cannot think that we are just some little place so no one will bother us, or we never participate in any controversy. You cannot know what is in the mind of a disturbed or evil person, and you can’t wait until violence comes to your door to figure out what to do.
Okay, that’s it, that’s the really basic rundown. As you can see, many of the topics can themselves be broken down into full classes, and we are very hopeful that this will happen again in the future. The Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Department is very proactive and the more people they hear from, the faster they will move on this issue. Germanna Community College is very supportive by providing a venue for this class and they have a great relationship with the community.
What’s next? Well, that depends on YOU. Share this with your mosque, church, gurdwala, synagogue, temple, meeting house, student association, food pantry, etc. Talk to the leaders of your house of worship, see what you can do to help. Reach out to people in your community who have knowledge in particular areas. If you have a police officer or retired military person in your congregation, she might be the perfect person to initiate a security program. Put all your needs on paper; figure out what type of fundraising you might need to do in order to purchase cameras or change door locks. Share this with other houses of worship in your community, and most importantly REACH ACROSS RELIGIOUS LINES. This is not an issue where Christians only help Christians or the Muslims don’t talk to the Jews. We need to make our religious communities and the larger communities safer, and we don’t do this by isolating ourselves. TALK to people.
You have my permission to share this article far and wide; please just attribute it to the original source in my blog. If you are in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County, you can contact the officers whose information I will provide below.
No one likes to think that their house of worship could be the target of a crime. Whether a nuisance crime like vagrants urinating by the playground, or a community member embezzling charity funds, or a domestic violence situation that spills over from home, or a hate crime, none of us are immune. We cannot walk around with our heads in the clouds thinking that because we are doing God’s work we don’t have to take precautions. Trust God, but tie your camel.
Contact information for Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office:
First Sergeant Shaun D. Jones
William E. Lee
Senior Deputy / Crime Prevention
Thanks again to First Sergeant Jones, Senior Deputy Lee, and Germanna Police Chief Branch for organizing this session. I look forward to attending more classes in the future so I can help to secure the safety of my beloved brothers and sisters.