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Take a Practical Approach to Worship Center Security

December 11, 2023 jill Blog
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In most Western societies, religious institutions were safe havens. Today, the threat of worship center violence is commonplace. To address this threat, don’t focus on perfection; focus on practicality.

A thwarted attack at a Northern Virginia church illustrates the need for a practical security approach. Last August, an armed individual drove over 30 miles to a church he targeted. He entered on the opposite side of the building from the off-duty police officers waiting to provide traffic control assistance. But, by luck or providence, he was apprehended before he began his assault.

The assailant was intercepted through two converging sequences of events. The first sequence involved someone reading social media and three law enforcement agencies in two states. The second chain of events involved the church security team.

In the first sequence of events, a person in Maryland noticed social media posts detailing the assailant’s intent. That person notified local authorities. Maryland authorities investigated and contacted Fairfax County Police in Virginia, where the assailant lived. FCP followed up at the suspect’s home and, not finding him, identified the church’s location in Prince William County. FCPD  contacted the Prince William County Police. The PWCP dispatched officers to the church and alerted the off-duty officers at the location to the threat.

Meanwhile, events were unfolding inside the church. The church security team had noticed the man’s appearance and erratic behavior, monitored his movements, and prepared to intervene. By the time the assailant was first identified as a possible threat, he was in the auditorium where the services were underway. The opportunity to confront the assailant came when he momentarily returned to the church lobby. This was when the security team and police officers moved to intercept him.

Three things stand out: The target’s randomness, the assailant’s willingness to attack regardless of a police presence, and the assailant’s ability to close with intended victims. Let’s look at these three issues.

Issue One: Target randomness

Worship centers don’t have the luxury of indifference, normalcy biases, or casual security approaches.

On the day of the attack, the assailant made a predawn visit to the church, but there is no evidence of any other previous connection to the church. The randomness of the attack leads to our first takeaway.

Takeaway One: Worship center violence can come at any time from anywhere and anyone.

Issue Two: Willingness to attack despite a police presence

Law enforcement is a vital security program element, but it’s only one element.

Once alerted to the threat, multijurisdictional law enforcement agencies did an exemplary job. But the incident proves the second observation – a police presence won’t dissuade a determined attacker. The view that a police presence is the ultimate deterrent is a prevalent assumption. But it’s a disservice to law enforcement to place unrealistic security expectations on them. Relying exclusively on law enforcement for security creates a preventable vulnerability.

Takeaway Two: A police presence isn’t a security guarantee.

Issue Three: The ability to close with intended targets

Effective protection depends on getting it right 100% of the time; an assailant only has to get it right once.

The third issue was the assailant’s ability to reach his intended victims. Unfortunately, most assailants reach their intended targets before they are intercepted. A myriad of factors can impact target access. About half are circumstantial factors. Other factors include lapses in planning, preparedness, implementation, and technique; these are preventable.

Takeaway Three: The assailant always has the advantage.

To address these threats, focus on a practical approach to security. 

The only perfect worship center security program exists in Utopia. By the way, Utopia means “no place” in ancient Greek. So, don’t focus on perfection; focus on practicality.

No matter your beliefs, size, location, or congregational makeup, you face infinite threats but have finite resources. You have to be prepared to handle medical emergencies, disaster situations, and both spontaneous and premeditated acts of violence. This takes planning.

Religious institutions face hostility from a society that increasingly sees violence as a reasonable response; hostility that’s often expressed through premeditated violence against unsuspecting institutions and people that, to the aggressor, represent something they oppose. Mitigating hostility takes training.

A practical security approach requires the wise use of resources. You may find some security planning and training resources locally, but don’t ignore the expertise vendors, professional trainers, and consultants can provide.

Vendors are excellent resources when procuring security equipment. But remember that a vendor’s goal is to sell their product, and  “when you sell hammers, every problem looks like a nail.” Don’t discount their expertise, but manage their input judiciously.

Training is essential to effective security, no matter how many “security experts” are on your team. But the wrong training is as bad as no training; choose professional trainers with the expertise you need.

Security consultants offer expertise and experience in planning, training, and program development. But, take time to vet any consultant. Make sure they have the knowledge and expertise to address your issues.

So, don’t seek perfection; seek practicality. Recognize that planning, training, and expertise are investments. Use your resources wisely: when procuring equipment, invest in quality; when retaining trainers and consultants, seek professionals.

Parting thought: When considering the costs of time and money, consider the cost of getting it wrong.

Jim Willis is a security and anti-terrorism expert who has worked in over 40 countries and conflict zones. He provides consulting and training services to clients across the US. Jim’s book, Vigilance: Planning and Implementing Effective Security and Emergency Response in Your Place of Worship, is available on Amazon. You can reach Jim at