New Life Church

A Dec. 9, 2008, dedication service on the one-year anniversary of the shootings at New Life Church in Colorado Springs for the memorial dedicated to victims of the attack. 

So far this year, 18 faith-based groups have reached out to security consultant Steve Padin for help developing safety plans, more than twice as many as in all of 2018.

Simon Osamoh, whose Minnesota company also handles security consulting for houses of worship, said more than 150 religious organizations attended his group’s annual conference last year. In 2016, fewer than 50 showed up.

Last week’s massacre at two mosques in New Zealand is the latest in a raft of mass shootings to hit churches, synagogues and mosques, prompting places intended to serve as havens from bloodshed to seek professional security services.

Religious leaders now want guidance on safety measures, like fortifying entrances and exits, spotting troubled congregants and deciding whether to hire their own armed security teams, experts say.

“In the last decade specifically, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of churches who are intentional about security,” said Carl Chinn, who runs a new network of faith-based security personnel that he says numbers more than 200.

Chinn was on the security team at New Life Church in Colorado Springs when a gunman killed two people in 2007, 12 hours after killing two others at a youth mission center near Denver.

The gunman was shot multiple times and stopped by a fellow volunteer security-guard before taking his own life.

In the years since, Chinn said he has seen more religious groups across the country adopt a two-tier security protocol, with longtime members trained to be more vigilant and a separate team of employees or volunteers trained to intervene if something goes wrong.

According to FBI data, attacks on houses of worship accounted for 4 percent of 250 active-shooter incidents in the U.S. from 2000 through 2017. But the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas; last year’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh; and last week’s attack at two Christchurch mosques that left 50 dead are spurring religious groups to change fundamentally how they approach safety issues.

As a result, more security consultants are tailoring their counsel to these organizations, whose needs stand apart from other American institutions.

Unlike schools or small businesses, houses of worship that value an open-door feel are reluctant to limit entry and exit points when considering security, said Osamoh, a former British police detective. Many specifically invite in troubled people as part of their mission.

He said keeping at least some doors locked during services and making sure ushers personally greet strangers, or anyone whose behavior seems suspicious, can limit the risk of violence while preserving an air of hospitality.

Rafi Ahmed, chairman of the board for the Muslim Association of Virginia, said the association’s largest mosque increased security several years ago by upgrading its camera system. In the wake of the New Zealand shooting, he hopes to bring in the FBI for an active-shooter training, and wants to hire a full-time security guard.

But Ahmed doesn’t want to take the same measures as some other houses of worship that have installed metal detectors or hired guards who frisk first-time visitors on the way in.

“Mosques are very welcoming,” he said.

Some places of worship have been weighing whether to go further — arming their security guards, for example, or allowing people to carry guns in sanctuaries. How religious organizations approach those questions varies widely and depends both on local gun laws and on the spiritual ethos of the group, security consultants said.

Josh Hamlin, lead pastor at New Covenant, an Assemblies of God church outside Buffalo, has been ratcheting up security for the last five years or so after consulting with Padin, a retired police officer in the upstate New York city.

A volunteer security team trained by Padin communicates by radio during services, and the church is in the process of installing security cameras.

Padin returns to New Covenant about once a year for more training.

There was one incident where the security team helped remove an armed congregant who had disputed with other members and separate occasions when additional security was needed because guests or speakers had received threats. But so far, no violence.

Because of the training, Hamlin said the worst-case scenario is always in the back of his mind as he speaks to his church.

“If something happens,” he said, “I’m not going to freeze.”

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