Quick Take: Houses of worship under siege

A recent online event shared best practices for law enforcement collaboration with faith-based communities to improve security


With increased violence targeting faith-based institutions, the Rutgers Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience and Center on Policing, in collaboration with the National Sheriffs’ Association, CrimeStoppers USA and the National Police Athletic & Activities League, recently hosted a webinar titled “Emergent Threats Roundtable: Houses of Worship Under Siege.” 

The goal of this online discussion was to share information on emerging threats to help communities prevent and prepare a response to events like the hostage situation at the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where a man took a rabbi and three other people hostage during services. 

Several speakers shared their experiences and research.

Police stand in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas. A man held hostages for more than 10 hours Saturday inside the temple. The hostages were able to escape and the hostage taker was killed.
Police stand in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas. A man held hostages for more than 10 hours Saturday inside the temple. The hostages were able to escape and the hostage taker was killed. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Characteristics of hostage takers and how hostages can survive

David Grantham, Ph.D., who serves as chief deputy, intelligence and technology for the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office, and as a senior fellow with the Center for a Secure Free Society, described most hostage-takers as:

  • Mentally ill.
  • Emotionally distraught.
  • Extremists.

Grantham said some things hostages can do to survive is:

  • Gain your composure as soon as possible.
  • Remain low-key.
  • Don’t offer suggestions to the hostage-taker.
  • Make it past the first 45 minutes. It improves your odds.
  • Stay calm by observing. If you are released early, your observations of how many hostage-takers there are, their weapons and where the hostages are may help save the lives of others.

Grantham said that when hostages are released, they should expect:

  • To be debriefed immediately by police.
  • Have a wellness check and embrace and stay engaged with the wellness process.

law enforcement preparations, training

Sheriff Louis Falco III, who chairs the NY State regional Homeland Security zone for counterterrorism and once helped thwart a major terrorist attack, told all present that law enforcement should: 

  • Be proactive and never complacent!
  • Engage with faith communities. 
  • Take walk-throughs of venues with K-9s before major events are held.
  • Get blueprints of churches, schools and other targets.
  • Implement cooperation agreements between SWAT teams to enable the relief of SWAT officers during lengthy responses.
  • Arrange overlapping patrol of targets on anniversary dates of attacks.

Frank Riehl, senior director of security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, emphasized the importance of not letting “the first time that police officers come to one of these facilities be when they are facing a major event.”

Chris Hill, current president of the National Police Athletic/Activities League Foundation Board, said it is important to have SWAT teams do walk-throughs of churches and schools.

Aric Mutchnick, president and CEO of Experior Group, also emphasized the need to train. He pointed out the concept of “run, hide, fight” has, according to Aric, become the “stop, drop and roll” of law enforcement. He believes it to be effective because it is easy to comprehend when taught and easy to remember later when someone is under stress.

Mutchnick also made a point of saying that when people see something that is clearly suspicious, they need to say something, without fear of being thought to be prejudiced if the suspicious person is a person of color. This fear has to be confronted and addressed through training. 

Imam Tahir Kukaj, vice-president of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center and NYPD chaplain, addresses the issue of security by establishing a close working relationship among the Christian, Jewish and Moslem faith communities in New York. Representatives of the different faiths have found that in talking about the similarities of their faiths, they are left with, “no time to look for the difference.” He stated these dialogs have led them to believe, “Anti-semitism, is anti-Islam and anti-Islam is anti-Christianity.”

Their meetings have revealed one difference among the faiths. Moslems worship on Fridays, his Jewish friends worship on Saturdays and his Christian friends, worship on Sundays. That allowed them to form a security plan in which they share security on days when one faith community is worshipping and the other is not.

Lessons identified 

The speakers identified some key lessons learned that should inform law enforcement and community collaboration: 

  • Training exercises for churches prove critical for survival.
  • Standardize training.
  • Churches should conduct threat assessments at their facilities and take action on any weaknesses identified.
  • Churches should establish a one-entrance policy when feasible.
  • Training to say something when you see something suspicious is not enough. People must be trained to recognize what is suspicious and taught “the process” for calling in such information.

information sharing

Several speakers mentioned that government fusion centers facilitate information sharing that might forewarn participants of threats. 

Joel Finkelstein shared how the Network Contagion Research Institute monitors online hate speech. The data gathered can help analysts predict when an attack is imminent and by whom. For example, the Center's data analysis can predict the impending violence by the social media posts of:

  • White supremacists.
  • Nihilists.
  • Social justice rioters.
  • Islamic radicals.

Grant money is also available for beefing up security in schools and the faith communities.

Conclusion

Indicators of impending violence, like vandalism directed at faith communities, are up “68%.” Therefore, keeping in mind the attack at Colleyville, police and members of faith communities must conclude the threat is real. 

One experienced attendee shared that when someone from a faith community comes to your law enforcement agency and asks, “Where do we start if we are concerned about security?” tell them to start by forming a church security committee.

The message from the speakers was loud and clear: “Get ready to be ready!”

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