According to the FBI, there were at least 433 active shooter attacks in the U.S. from 2000 to 2021. Sixty-one incidents were reported in 2021, resulting in 103 deaths and 140 people wounded. This is a 52.5% increase in incidents over 2020 and 96.8% increase since 2017. While the location of these incidents varies, houses of worship and faith-based organizations continue to be extremely soft targets for violent extremists and hate crimes.
This holiday season, the FBI and local law enforcement throughout the country continue to monitor credible threats on communities of faith. Police across the Metropolitan region are keeping a closer eye than usual on Jewish houses of worship after the FBI cited credible information regarding a broad threat to synagogues in New York and New Jersey. Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation this month aimed at strengthening the state’s threat response infrastructure. It requires large venues and places of worship to submit emergency plans to law enforcement agencies for the purpose of preparing for mass casualty and active shooter events. While this law will apply to places that seat more than 500 people, there are preventative steps that faith-based communities of every size should consider. No one is exempt. Let’s take a closer look.
Cooperation and Building Relationships | It is important that local law enforcement and first responders engage religious community leaders and congregations in their jurisdiction to build a culture of safety in the fight against terrorism. This information exchange should include transparency on the current threat and ways to identify early risk factors. Likely, there are first responders who are already members of a religious community who can serve as trusted initial points of contact in building active working relationships.
Intelligence | An inherently welcoming open-door policy creates ripe opportunity for bad actors seeking to cause harm. By establishing an open dialogue with law enforcement, community leaders can collect and share real-time intelligence to allow for a true understanding of risk and vulnerability.
Training and Education | Armed with timely intelligence, organizations are better equipped to develop prevention methods and security best practices. First responders can play a valuable role in providing education, resources and tools to help leaders improve the safety of their communities. This process can better assess risk exposure, proper protocols, roles and responsibilities, and security measures that will help mitigate the threat.
Review Online Communication Practices | Faith-based organizations host public activities regularly that are intended to unite their community and provide public benefit. Prayer services, classes, celebratory activities, and food and donation collections are all posted online to inform and garner broad interest. This also unfortunately provides bad actors with timely intel on when, where and how large groups of people will be congregating. It is important that organizers remain vigilant to suspicious behavior, ranging from bulky clothing that could conceal a weapon to loitering in unauthorized areas of the facility.
Plain-clothes Guards | By design, most houses of worship have several entry doors. Congregations often sit facing front, with their backs to the door. These conditions and the solemness of service, offer very little situational awareness to the risk of a potential active shooter. The presence of a well-trained, armed security professional in plain clothes who is not immediately recognizable as security provides a heightened security posture. A gunman who is intent on causing mass casualty will quickly identify and neutralize a uniformed security guard. A covert professional is more likely to identify the bad actor first and mitigate the threat.
These are just a few of many security options that should be considered when developing a layered security plan to protect people and property from today’s escalating threat. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but rather meaningful initiatives that should be balanced against an entity’s unique needs, resources, budget and intention.
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