Rapid Response: How LE can help change the security culture at faith-based institutions

We must expect that religious facilities are primary targets, and take the active measures necessary to protect them from likely attack


What happened: A man entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened fire on the congregation’s members, killing 11 people and wounding six – including four police officers.

Details are still unclear at this early stage and the investigation is still developing, but we do know that the murderer made anti-Semitic statements immediately prior to the attack.

Top takeaways

Police stand guard outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where a shooter opened fire Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Police stand guard outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where a shooter opened fire Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Attacks like these are incredibly upsetting and can encourage a sense of hopelessness. We cannot prevent them from happening, but there are positive actions to take to mitigate their effects. To that end, here are some identifiable lessons from this latest rapid mass murder:

1. Protecting predictable targets

The synagogue attack continues a grisly trend of disturbed and hateful individuals launching attacks on religious facilities. These places are frequently chosen as targets for several reasons, to include their symbolic value, the typical lack of security measures at these locations, and the likelihood that most people in attendance will not mount an aggressive defense due to their age (most congregations include a high percentage of elderly people and children) or their disposition.

A similar situation exists for schools, where the vast majority of the population consists of young children, and it’s unlikely that armed and prepared adults will be present to repel the attack.

Knowing the propensity for evil and broken individuals to attack soft targets like these, law enforcement agencies have a duty to reach out to these institutions and aggressively work with them to improve their security measures. There is no excuse to be caught off guard by an attack on a church or school in this day and age. We must expect that schools and churches in our jurisdictions are primary targets, and take the active measures necessary to protect them from likely attack.

2. Be prepared to counsel, lead and educate

When agencies approach schools and religious institutions to offer assistance with security improvements, they are likely to find that the personnel who manage and run these facilities are not emotionally prepared to deal with the reality that they are likely targets of violence. Educating them about the changes necessary to improve security will require patience, leadership and a dedicated effort from law enforcement.

The people who manage and run educational and religious facilities generally operate from a very different emotional and mental perspective than law enforcement professionals, and have a different base of experience. This will make security a “hard sell” for many of these individuals, who will either fail to understand the necessity of such measures, or be frightened by the idea that they are necessary. In either case, police are likely to find that they are treated like messengers carrying bad news that the institutions would rather not hear or deal with.

It’s imperative for law enforcement agencies to be prepared for this natural resistance, and to be ready to help guide these community leaders to a better understanding of their situation. This is best accomplished through a conversation that is patient, calm, reasoned and supported by credible information. It’s the job of police leaders to help educators and religious leaders understand the reality of their situation, and give them the confidence that they can deal with the problem with guidance and assistance from the police.

This will take some patience and effort to cultivate. You cannot expect to walk in the door and get results with a “shock and awe” campaign. Establish trust and confidence first; work on the security particulars later.

3. Be in it for the long haul

The nature of most police work is transitory. We deal with problems just long enough to stabilize things and then we move on to the next problem. It’s rare for police officers to get the chance to work on a problem for an extended period.

Church and school security is not like that. It takes persistent effort over an extended period. Law enforcement agencies need to view this as a long-term relationship that will require constant maintenance and effort.

From the information available today, it appears that the Tree of Life Synagogue made some changes in the past in response to previous security audits. One of the synagogue’s leaders indicated that they made repairs to some broken exit doors that were previously identified, which saved lives in today’s attack by allowing people to flee the attacker.

While this is a positive result, imagine how much better things could have gone if they hadn’t stopped there. Imagine how the Pittsburgh synagogue attack could have played out if the synagogue had put stronger access controls in place, or if they had developed a trained and equipped volunteer security team with the assistance of the Pittsburgh Police Department or skilled professionals like the instructors at the FASTER Program. Imagine how many lives could have been saved if the attacker had been immediately engaged by armed security prior to the arrival of the police, or how many injured people could have been saved by volunteers who were trained and equipped to provide immediate casualty care.

It’s easy to change a lock. It’s a lot harder to change a culture. That takes a lot of time and effort. It takes a long-term commitment.

Going forward

Changing the security culture at faith-based institutions is exactly what law enforcement should be trying to do. The police have a role in protecting the people in these places – and today’s response demonstrates that they will sacrifice their own safety to do it – but school and religious leaders have an important role to play in protecting their own as well.

At some level, these community leaders have already accepted responsibility for the safety and well-being of the students or parishioners in their charge. They take student accountability seriously, host fire and natural disaster drills, train in CPR and place automatic external defibrillators on the wall. They have bought into the concept that they have a responsibility for safety, but in most cases they haven’t taken their preparations far enough. It is the job of law enforcement to help them understand that they have other additional safety responsibilities to attend to, and give them the help and assistance they need.

That’s something productive that police can work on as the rest of the world sits in shock following today’s horrific attack. We owe it to the victims in Pittsburgh and to the people in our communities to turn our most likely soft targets into hard targets that will deter and defeat cowardly, evil attacks like this one today.

This is the only good that can come of a tragedy like this, and it will take law enforcement leadership to make it happen.

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