How to engage houses of worship for all-hazards preparedness

Now more than ever, police agencies must work with faith-based communities to ensure they’re prepared


The deadly mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last week is just the latest in a string of high-profile incidents of violence at houses of worship. Now more than ever, police agencies must work with faith-based communities to ensure they’re prepared not only for active shooters, but for all emergencies that may occur. At the 125th annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, one agency shared how you can engage houses of worship for all-hazards preparedness.  

PARTICIPANTS

Mark Landahl, Homeland Security Commander, Frederick County (Md.) Sheriff's Office

Harry Johnson, Chaplain, Frederick County Sheriff's Office

Barbara Kershner Daniel, Pastor, Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ

Harold Jones, Deputy First Class, Frederick County Sheriff's Office

In this June 18, 2015, file photo, a group of women pray together at a makeshift memorial on the sidewalk in front of the Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)
In this June 18, 2015, file photo, a group of women pray together at a makeshift memorial on the sidewalk in front of the Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)

QUICK SUMMARY

Dr. Mark Landahl, Homeland Security Commander for the Frederick County (Md.) Sheriff's Office, told the audience that his agency’s faith-based community preparedness plan has two main goals:

  • Increase the awareness of regional hazards the local faith communities face;
  • Increase overall resilience in those faith communities by encouraging and supporting preparedness through offering multi-disciplinary response training around those community hazards.

In order to deliver this all-hazards training to faith-based communities effectively, the agency partnered with some of its neighboring police forces, the county emergency advisory committee, fire rescue and public health services to collectively offer training in areas like hands-only CPR, Stop the Bleed, overdose response, and personal and family preparedness.

“While the community was interested in things like active shooter, we also have a raging opioid crisis,” Landahl said. “So it was trying to engage the community full spectrum. Active shooter may be the ‘sexy’ topic, but the more likely thing to happen in a house of worship is going to be a medical emergency or weather event. That’s why we need to cover the full range of hazards.”

3 KEY TAKEAWAYS

1. Connecting with the faith-based community comes with a unique set of challenges.

Rev. Dr. Barbara Kershner Daniel of the Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ broke down the unique challenges that come with connecting with a faith-based community that all agencies should be aware of:

  • They tend to lean toward complacency in all things;
  • Decisions are often made by not deciding (a higher power will decide);
  • There’s a pervasive belief these things happen in “other” communities, not to them;
  • They view compassion vs. safety as a conflict (we shouldn’t be turning people away or be suspicious of people);
  • Their organization depends on volunteers, so it’s hard to find decision-makers;
  • They’re suspicious of law enforcement.

2. Overcoming those challenges will take patience.

Daniel broke down the best practices for overcoming the above challenges and collaborating with faith-based communities:

  • Get real (from natural disasters to active shooters, understand that there are threats and you need to prepare for them);
  • Explain that faith-based communities can be compassionate and safe at the same time (the two are not mutually exclusive);
  • Find partners and create networks (council of churches, interfaith groups, your own faith leader);
  • Empower the youth to lead (young people are especially apt at helping lead drills because they already do them in school);
  • Emphasize the value of the program you’re offering (if it’s free, tell them it’s free);
  • Be present as “friends” in the community (these connections start long before you begin all-hazards training, through community policing events like Coffee with a Cop);
  • Don’t give up (sometimes the faith community is slow to adapt or listen, but they’ll come around).

3. Offer a free security assessment.

Keep in mind that faith-based communities often have limited financial resources. One of the ways in is offering a free security assessment to expose areas of vulnerability. Frederick County Sheriff's Office Chaplain Harry Johnson, who conducts a CPTED security assessment in houses of worship, said he gives each church a written summary of survey findings with recommendations and a plan of action that costs little to no money.

Some common issues he finds in houses of worship are:

  • Better key control is needed (staff tend to be very liberal with handing out keys to facilities);
  • Facilities need to be better maintained, including attention to vegetation, trash and debris (Broken Windows theory);
  • Many houses of worship need to secure items that could be used as entry tools;
  • Doors are often unmonitored and unlocked, or have broken locks;
  • Security needs to begin in the parking lot, not the front door;
  • Staff must be trained to observe unusual persons and behavior;
  • Older outdoor lights need to be replaced with newer technology.

The National Institute of Justice offers a free tool, the Safeguarding Houses of Worship (SHOW) app, that helps agencies work with faith-based communities to assess their vulnerabilities and come up with a safety plan.

RESOURCES

  • Contact Lt. Mark Landahl at 301-600-4018 or by email at mlandahl@frederickcountymd.gov.
  • For more information, check out FEMA’s “Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship” here.

LEARN MORE

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

Faith groups: The hidden target of violence

Cops, houses of worship come together to use safety and security planning app

5 things to know about police chaplains

How a police chaplaincy can help cops and civilians

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