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Church Security: Does Your Church Need a Security Guard?

By Richard R. Hammar

Article summary

Most churches in America are safe places. While incidents of shootings on church property are shocking, they are rare, averaging one or two per year. But because of the open-access policy of most churches, churches remain easy targets for violent acts. While we cannot prevent such acts, church leaders can take steps to manage the risk.

Just 4 days after a gunman killed eight people in a Nebraska mall in December 2007, another gunman killed two people and injured three others at a Colorado church. Earlier that day the same gunman had killed two people at a Colorado missions training facility. These events shocked the nation and sparked an intense debate within many churches over the need for security guards. This article will review recent incidents of shootings on church property, address several legal issues associated with various security measures, and conclude with an assessment of steps church leaders can take to manage the risk.

Summary of Major Church Shooting Incidents Since 1998

date

place

shooter

victims

weapon

how resolved

possible motive

gunman a church member?

gunman made prior threats?

shooting occurred during church services?

December 2007

New Life Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado

24-year-old Matthew Murray

2 dead, 3 wounded

High-powered rifle

gunman, committed suicide when confronted by armed church member

Revenge (expelled from Arvada missions agency)

No

No

Yes

August 2007

First Congregational Church of Neosho, Missouri

52-year-old Eiken Elam Saimon

3 dead, 4 wounded

9mm semi-automatic pistol, and a small caliber handgun

gunman surrendered to police

Family argument

No

No

Yes

May 2007

First Presbyterian Church, Moscow, Idaho

36-year-old Jason Hamilton

1 dead

AK-47 and M1A assault rifles

gunman committed suicide when cornered by police

Unknown

No

No

No

July 2006

Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, Seattle, Washington

30-year-old Naveed Afzal Haq

1 dead, 5 wounded

2 handguns

gunman surrendered to police

Hate crime

No

No

Yes

May 2006

The Ministry of Jesus Christ Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

25-year-old Anthony Bell

5 dead, 2 wounded

Handgun

arrested in an apartment building away from the church

Family dispute (all victims were relatives of the gunman’s estranged wife)

No

No

No

February 2006

Zion Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan

22-year-old Kevin Collins

2 dead

Shotgun

gunman died of self-inflicted wound while fleeing police

Family dispute

No

No

Yes

October 2005

Chabad Weltman Synagogue, Boca Raton, Florida

79-year-old Marc Benayer

1 dead

Handgun

gunman arrested

Revenge (victim helped gunman’s ex-girlfriend obtain a restraining order against him

No

No

No

August 2005

Assembly of God, Sash, Texas

54-year-old Frederick Leroy Cranshaw

2 dead

9 mm semi-automatic pistol and a .38-caliber revolver

gunman committed suicide when cornered by police several miles from the church, he

Unknown

No

No

Yes

July 2005

World Changers Church International, College Park, Georgia

27-year-old John Givens

None

Handgun

police killed gunman

Unknown

No

No

No

March 2005

Living Church of God, Brookfield, Wisconsin

44-year-old Terry Ratzmann

7 dead, 4 wounded

9mm semi-automatic pistol

gunman died of a self-inflicted wound

Depression, alcohol use, upset over a sermon, frustration over inability to find a spouse

Yes

No

Yes

October 2003

Turner Monumental AME Church, Atlanta, Georgia

43-year-old Shelia Chaney Wilson

2 dead

Handgun

gunman died of a self-inflicted wound

Loss of job; some church members considered the shooter “mentally unstable”

Yes

No

Yes

June 2002

Benedictine monastery, Conception, Missouri

71-year-old Lloyd Jeffress

2 dead, 2 wounded

AK-47 assault rifle, .22 caliber rifle

gunman died of a self-inflicted wound

Unknown

No

No

No

March 2002

Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church, Lynbrook, New York

34-year-old Peter Troy

2 dead

.22 caliber semi-automatic rifle

police arrested gunman at his home

Unknown

No

No

Yes

May 2001

Greater Oak Missionary Baptist Church, Hopkinsville, Kentucky

35-year-old Fredrick Radford

2 dead

Handgun

police arrested gunman at the church

Domestic dispute (one victim was his estranged wife)

Unknown

Yes

Yes

September 1999

Wedgewood Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas

47-year-old Larry Ashbrook

7 dead, 7 wounded

9mm semi-automatic pistol

gunman died of a self-inflicted wound

Hate crime (gunman shouted anti-religious curses); friends described gunman as a paranoid loner and “very troubled”

No

No

Yes

Church Liability

Generally, property owners have no duty to protect others from the criminal acts of third parties who are not subject to their control. But there are exceptions. For example, property owners have a duty to use ordinary care to protect invitees from criminal acts of third parties if the owner knows or has reason to know of an unreasonable and foreseeable risk of harm to invitees. Persons on church property to attend religious services or other scheduled activities generally are considered invitees, whether members or visitors, since they are on the premises by reason of an actual or implicit invitation.

In deciding if criminal conduct on a landowner’s premises was foreseeable most courts have focused on the following factors:

We must consider these factors together in determining whether criminal conduct is foreseeable. The frequency of previous crimes necessary to show foreseeability lessens as the similarity of the previous crimes to the incident at issue increases. The frequent occurrence of property crimes in the vicinity is not as indicative of foreseeability as the less frequent occurrence of personal crimes on the landowner’s property itself. The court must weigh the evidence using all the factors.

Can a church be liable for deaths or injuries caused by an armed assailant as a result of a failure to employ security guards or police officers? Most churches do not employ such persons. Does this make them liable for shooting rampages that occur on their premises? No court has addressed this question in a published decision, but a few courts have addressed this question in cases involving other property owners. These cases suggest that a church has no legal duty to hire security guards except in cases of “heightened foreseeability of third party criminal activity on the premises” due to “prior similar incidents or other indications of a reasonably foreseeable risk of violent criminal assaults on church property.”

Hiring one or more security guards is an expensive practice that a church can justify only by a high degree of foreseeability that a shooting or other violent criminal act will occur on church property.

If a church decides to hire security guards, can it be liable for deaths and injuries that they cause, or fail to prevent, on the ground that the church was negligent in selecting the guards? To illustrate, assume that an armed assailant on church property shoots a woman despite the fact the church employs a security guard. The woman sues the church, claiming that the church was negligent in selecting its security guard. She points out that the guard was not a police officer, had no law-enforcement training, was not licensed, and had only minimal training in handling a firearm. Is it possible that the church is responsible for her injuries under these circumstances? While no court has addressed this question in a published decision involving a church, a few have addressed this issue in other contexts. These cases suggest that a church may be liable on the basis of negligent hiring for injuries caused by, or not prevented by, a security guard if the church failed to exercise reasonable care in investigating the competency of the guard before hiring him. The church, however, can reduce this risk by exercising reasonable care in selecting a security guard. As will be noted later, a church can best demonstrate the exercise of reasonable care by hiring only uniformed, off-duty police officers as security guards.

Churches that hire security guards may be liable for deaths and injuries caused by the negligence of their guards — even if a church did not have a legal duty to hire security guards because criminal acts on church property were not foreseeable. As one court has observed, “We do not hold that business owners owe any duty to the public to provide security services generally. We simply find that where a business owner undertakes to provide security services, he remains liable as though he directly employed the security personnel, regardless of whether they are technically employed by an independent entity.” The court noted that “the majority of jurisdictions that have considered this issue have reached the same conclusion [and] have recognized the existence of this specific nondelegable duty, either explicitly or by imposing vicarious liability on a store for the intentional torts of independently contracted security guards regardless of the nature of the employment relationship between the store and the security agency.”1

Risk Management

Courts, public figures, and law-enforcement officials have all acknowledged that no level of risk management can thwart a dedicated killer from shooting people on church premises. President Bill Clinton, following a 1999 shooting rampage in a Texas church that left 7 dead and 7 more wounded, noted that “there is nothing we can do to assure that this will never happen, but there is a lot more we can do to assure that it will happen more rarely.” Even the most stringent precautions will not prevent such incidents. To illustrate, consider a church that uses metal detectors at each entrance, and armed guards. Will these measures prevent shooting incidents from happening? No. They would not stop a dedicated assailant who is sufficiently armed.

If no level of risk management can prevent such incidents from happening, what should churches do? Church leaders need to view risk management as achieving four attainable objectives:

Described below are several precautionary measures.

(1) security guards

Churches need to consider using security guards in some situations, including the following:

(a) A legal duty to employ security guards may exist because the risk of shootings or other violent crimes on church property is highly foreseeable based on the following factors described below:
(b) The church deems the use of one or more security guards necessary to further a church’s theological and biblical principles, whether or not legally required.

As noted above, a church that uses security guards may be liable for deaths and injuries caused by the negligence of their guards based on at least two potential grounds: (1) negligent hiring; and (2) a nondelegable duty to exercise reasonable care in the protection of the public when a security guard is employed, whether or not the church had a legal duty to employ a guard. These risks make it imperative for churches that elect to use security guards to select persons of demonstrable competence. Consider the following options:

a. one or more armed, uniformed off-duty police officers during worship services and other events involving multiple persons

A church can reduce its risk of liability for injuries caused by, or not prevented by, a security guard by exercising reasonable care in selecting a security guard. A church can best demonstrate the exercise of reasonable care by hiring only uniformed, off-duty police officers as security guards since such persons:

Churches considering the use of uniformed off-duty police officers need to check with the local police department regarding the recruitment of such persons as security guards, and the number of guards needed.

b. one or more uniformed, private security guards

Some churches that decide to employ security guards may opt for uniformed, private security guards who the church directly hires, or who work for a security firm that provides guards to the church pursuant to a contractual agreement. Sometimes these persons are members of the church who have nothing more than a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Churches will find it more difficult to defend against a negligent hiring claim when hiring security guards who are not police officers. But the church can reduce the risk to some degree through various means, including the following:

According to the United States Department of Labor: “Most States require that guards be licensed. To be licensed as a guard, individuals must usually be at least 18 years old, pass a background check, and complete classroom training in such subjects as property rights, emergency procedures, and detention of suspected criminals. Drug testing often is required and may be random and ongoing.”

The appropriate government authority must license guards who carry weapons, and some receive further certification as special police officers. This allows them to make limited types of arrests while on duty. Armed guard positions have more stringent background checks and entry requirements than those of unarmed guards.

An increasing number of states are making ongoing training a legal requirement for retention of licensure. Guards may receive training in protection, public relations, report writing, crisis deterrence, first aid, and specialized training relevant to their particular assignment.

The American Society for Industrial Security International has written voluntary training guidelines. The ASIS intends for these guidelines to provide regulating bodies consistent minimum standards for the quality of security services. These guidelines recommend that security guards receive at least 48 hours of training within the first 100 days of employment. These guidelines also suggest that security guards be required to pass a written or performance examination covering topics such as sharing information with law enforcement, crime prevention, handling evidence, the use of force, court testimony, report writing, interpersonal and communication skills, and emergency response procedures. In addition, they recommend annual retraining and additional firearms training for armed officers.

Security guards with little or no training, and are not licensed under state law, present the greatest risk of liability to a church or other employer as a result of injuries they inflict while responding to a crime or otherwise performing their duties, or injuries they fail to prevent.

c. using church members legally authorized to carry a concealed weapon as nonuniformed security guards

Such persons generally offer the least risk reduction of any category of security guard if they have little or no law enforcement training, and have no license as security guards under state law. Further, they do not provide the possible deterrence that accompanies a uniform, even if it is the uniform of a private security guard rather than a police officer.

d. ushers and greeters

While technically not security guards, properly trained ushers and greeters can serve a vital role in alerting the church’s crisis response team, or local law enforcement, to suspicious behavior or acts of violence when they occur. Often, such persons may be the first responders. For this reason, it is important for them to carry cell phones.

(2) technology

Like security guards, crime-fighting technologies need to be implemented as a result of either or both of the following grounds:

(a) A legal duty to install technological devices may exist because the risk of shootings or other violent crimes on church property is highly foreseeable based on the following factors described below:
(b) The use of one or more technological devices is deemed necessary to further a church’s theological and biblical principles, whether or not legally required.

In evaluating the feasibility of various technologies to prevent or reduce the risk of shootings in public schools, the United States Department of Justice noted that schools must consider the effectiveness, affordability, and acceptability of each technology. To illustrate, many church leaders would regard metal detectors at church entrances as unacceptable, even if they were affordable and effective, because they are incompatible with the concept of sanctuary and are at odds with biblical assurances of providence and divine protection. Many smaller churches cannot afford such devices.

Listed below are three different devices often used to prevent or reduce the risk of crime. In each case, church leaders need to consider the device’s effectiveness, affordability, and acceptability in evaluating its usefulness.

a. surveillance cameras

Surveillance cameras cannot prevent shootings and other violent crimes on church property, but they can act as a deterrent to crime, provide a record of what happened, allow church staff to monitor the entire church campus from a single location, and expedite a call to the police in the event of suspicious behavior.

On the downside: (1) surveillance cameras are expensive, and this disadvantage is compounded when multiple cameras are employed; (2) someone must continually check the monitors, and this removes the person from performing more active surveillance, such as visiting areas where people congregate; (3) selecting the appropriate equipment requires technical knowledge; (4) ongoing maintenance and operational support are required; (5) some individuals will challenge the need for cameras in a church; (6) persons with knowledge of the installed video system’s capabilities may not be deterred by them, and possibly could circumvent the system to their advantage or carry out their criminal acts in a different area of the church; and (7) cameras will not deter dedicated assailants, especially if they plan on killing themselves at the end of their crime spree.

b. metal detectors

Most church leaders, even in high-crime areas, consider the use of metal detectors at church entrances to be offensive to congregational members and visitors, and fundamentally incompatible with the nature of the church as a sanctuary, making their use unthinkable. As noted above, church leaders need to evaluate risk management technologies in terms of their effectiveness, affordability, and acceptability. Even if metal detectors at church entrances would be an effective deterrent to violent crime, and affordable, most church members consider them unacceptable, especially for those attending churches in low crime areas that have no history of shootings or other violent crimes on or near church property. In summary, the use of metal detectors at church entrances would be an extraordinary measure justified by only a high foreseeability of violent crime. Few churches, even in high crime areas, utilize these devices.

c. entry control technologies

Places of public accommodation can permit or deny access in four principal ways. The first and most common approach is manpower intensive, and the remaining three employ technological devices. These four approaches are:

Some churches use keypads or card readers during the week to restrict access to church employees.

(3) signage

Conspicuous signs at church entrances may serve many purposes. The church should not underestimate their value to security. Signs are not too expensive, but the price of not having one can sometimes be substantial. Consider the following:

(4) other measures

Unfortunately, recent tragedies in the United States have demonstrated the need for churches to be prepared to respond to shootings and other violent crimes. The United States Department of Justice has prepared the following recommendations for schools to help reduce the risk of violent crime (the word “church” is substituted for “school”).2

Conclusions

Listed below are several conclusions based on the material presented in this article:

This article is excerpted from a much longer article that appeared in the March-April 2008 edition of Richard Hammar’s Church Law and Tax Report newsletter. A copy of the full article may be obtained by calling 1-800-222-1840. Copyright 2008 by Richard R. Hammar.

RICHARD R. HAMMAR, LL.M, CPA, serves as legal counsel to the Assemblies of God, and is editor of the Church Law and Tax Report newsletter. He has written more than 50 books on church legal and tax issues, including the third edition of Pastor, Church and Law.

Notes

1. Simon v. Safeway, Inc., 2007 WL 4441194 (Ariz. App. 2007).

2. Department of Justice, Research Report: The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools.

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