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Faith groups: The hidden target of violence

Just as police planners would engage with schools and workplaces, they should engage proactively with houses of worship


In 2017, there were 114 violent deaths on property in possession of faith-based groups.


The final weekend of 2019 saw two horrific attacks on places of worship. On December 28, five people were stabbed during an upstate New York Hanukkah celebration. The next day, two people were shot at a Texas church service before a firearms instructor fatally shot the gunman. In this article, PoliceOne columnist Chief Joel Shults details some of the steps law enforcement can take to improve church security. What is your agency doing to protect places of worship in your community? Email

Take domestic discord, existential angst, mental illness, and the classic battle between good and evil and you have the most fertile ground for violence: church.

In 2017, there were a reported 25 deaths at K-12 schools from violence. There were 114 violent deaths on the property in possession of faith-based groups in the same year, according to Jimmy Meeks who, along with Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, provides safety training to churches.

Assaults on kids in schools touch our deepest fears about what should be our most protected innocents. An invasion of the safety of schools by attackers inside and out has yielded a historic increase in training and cooperation between schools and law enforcement. Debates still rage on strategies to prevent and respond to school shootings. School shootings hurt our hearts the most perhaps, but workplace violence dots the weekly landscape of breaking news also. Many employers offer at least some civilian active shooter training in the run, hide, fight strategy.

Ironically, the highest death tolls from violence in 2017 came not from schools or workplaces, but a country music concert and a small Texas Church. The Route 91 death toll was 58 at first count, the Sutherland Springs shooting at First Baptist Church claimed 26 lives.

Although not on the front burner of planning and response, the relatively high risk of deadly assaults on church staff and worshipers should be an important component of overall prevention and response planning for both the police and the institutions.

Why are churches vulnerable?

Until recent times, the ethos of most mainline centers of worship was that the grounds were a place of peace with an assumed immunity from violence and gunplay. Many churches today have armed safety teams, but in days gone by even congregants who were police officers often went unarmed. The church was an oasis. Many remained open at all times to allow anyone to enter for prayer and meditation. A church in my hometown remained unlocked with its silver communion set comfortably stationed near the pulpit.

During the week, church buildings are often minimally staffed. The perception of some offenders is that churches are soft targets containing cash or valuable items. A welcoming environment precluded an expectation of violent confrontations. People with troubles were ushered in as part of the church’s mission. The attraction of church offices to transient and troubled souls brings potentially unstable persons to churches. Pastoral counseling in family issues can be perceived as interference by domestic violence offenders.

Social issues with moral implications can incite the rage of mentally unstable persons who fixate on churches as a symbolic center for anger against God or the place of worship’s ideological stance.

Law enforcement’s role in protecting churches

Issues of church and state may make police leaders hesitant to consider interaction with religious organizations, but as targets of opportunity for violence against their residents, every police agency should be proactively engaged in safety planning with churches, mosques, temples, shrines, and religious schools.

With church safety teams and concealed carry more prevalent, response coordination with local law enforcement is more important than ever. This includes interagency planning.

A campus police officer was one of the first on the scene of the 2007 New Life Church shooting in Colorado Springs, and many large churches hire off-duty officers for security or traffic control. Attackers may be engaged by guardians with no immediate means of communicating with responding officers.

Knowing points of contact, points of entry and egress and areas of refuge is essential for officers working the areas of even the smallest congregations. Keep in mind that for Sunday meetings, response capacity is typically at the lowest point on a police schedule.

Education and planning

It is not unusual for churches to have alarms and camera systems, but many clergy have yet to fully appreciate the risks faced by their staff and congregants.

Clergy are often members of community groups that share seats at the table with law enforcement leaders. Encouraging cooperation in emergency planning and training can be as simple as bringing up the topic at the next Rotary Club or Kiwanis meeting.

Just as police planners would engage with schools and workplaces, they should engage proactively with houses of worship. Although religious institutions have a high profile as victims of violence, their low profile in the public conscience should not lull law enforcement into delaying a partnership to prepare for the worst.

This article, originally published 10/27/2018, has been updated.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.