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The horrific massacreat a Charleston, South Carolina, church Wednesday night calls attention to a stark fact: Even the most sacred of places aren't immune to violence.
Carl Chinn, a church security specialist who compiles data from news reports, estimates that in 2014 there were 176 violent incidents — 74 of which were deadly — in houses of worship. That's the highest number since Chinn started keeping track of statistics in 1999, when there were just 22 violent deaths.
"These are assaults, these are robberies, these are suicides, as well as murders that take place," Clint Van Zandt, former FBI profiler and an NBC News analyst, said. "Unfortunately in this country, we have a responsibility to be aware of the potential for violence anywhere we go. There is no such thing as a totally safe haven."
The majority of the roughly 350,000 houses of worship in America have not been terrorized, statistics show. But escalating security concerns prompted the federal government in 2013 to release its first-ever set of recommendations for keeping houses of worship safe, a year after a gunman killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
The report recommended churches, synagogues, and mosques form a team that collaborates with first responders to come up with a plan should there be any emergency — which could be anything from a fire to an active shooter situation.
New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is all too familiar with parishioners being put in the line of fire. In 2007, two churchgoers were shot to death and three others were injured when a gunman opened fire at Sunday services there.
The megachurch, which is attended by 12,000 people, has a full-time security director and a security team comprised of about 75 volunteers. Whenever church events are held, uniform police officers are hired to patrol the campus, said senior pastor Brady Boyd.
"We have to be equipped like a small town would be for an event," Boyd said. "Not only do we have security, but we have volunteer medical teams."
But a church's size isn't its only risk factor.
"There is a small group of people in our country who despise Christian values and want to attack," Boyd said. "But more importantly, if a domestic dispute is going to happen, most people know that they can find their spouse or friend at church."
In addition to the security team, ushers, greeters and the rest of the staff is trained to be on alert if they see something suspicious.
That's consistent with the government's security recommendations, which also suggested houses of worship:
- post information about evacuation routes throughout the building
- review responses to emergency scenarios by doing drills
- and make staff aware of warning signs of someone who could incite violence against them (i.e. someone who has developed a personal grievance or recently experienced a loss such as a death, breakup, divorce, or loss of a job).
Chinn, the church security expert, said more and more religious leaders are attending his seminars for help with security. He teaches them safety basics, but also emphasizes the need to be flexible.
"Yes, you plan. Yes, you put together procedures. Yes, you have team meetings and you talk about how you're going to be prepared for this type of scenario. But be ready for anything. Like a football huddle, once that ball is popped, everything changes," he said. "That's the way security in a church is — security anywhere."
But the chance of something like the Charleston attack happening at any given house of worship is about the same as being struck by lightning, he said.
"Don't live your life in fear. Just use these things as an education and a wake-up call," he said.