Church Security: The Costs of Security Negligence
By Jeff Hawkins

Jeff HawkinsJeff Hawkins is Founder and Executive Director of the Christian Security Network.

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Church Security

Few things will motivate an organization to take action more than having a court order it to pay someone $1.6 million for lack of security and emergency plans.

An interesting lawsuit was just settled in Maryland and it would be wise for all churches to view this very closely because, even though it wasn’t a church named in the lawsuit, it very well could have been.

Before we get into the incident details, ask yourself a key question right now: if a violent incident were to take place in your church, during a time when many people are gathered, how quickly could you warn EVERYONE that there was a threat inside the church?

Could you do it in less than eight minutes, because this was considered too long by the court, thus the $1.6 million judgment.

Here are the facts as we know them and this dates back to a 2005 incident, so this shows how long lawsuits can take. Just because an incident ends, it can drag on in court for years.

In 2005 a mentally disturbed woman entered a Nordstrom retail store located in a mall. Armed with four butcher knives the woman began chasing and stabbing people, two of them were the plaintiff’s in the lawsuit who suffered injuries. An off-duty FBI agent happened to be in the store, drew his weapon, and the woman stopped.

Again, the incident took about 8 minutes.

The injured parties lawyers argued in court that the retail store did not adequately warn shoppers that a woman armed with four butcher knives was on the loose and the court agreed.

The attorneys for the plaintiff (the injured parties) pointed out that Nordstrom had an emergency manual but that its employees were not adequately trained to follow it.

Nordstrom may be appeal this case or they may just pay the amount to settle the suit; for a high-end, retail giant $1.6 million is not that much money, but what if it was your church?

There are some key “take aways” from this lawsuit, and other security negligence lawsuits we have pointed out over the years in our training.

The first is you can have all the manuals, procedures, and plans written down and in place, but if you don’t communicate it, document the training, and test your staff and volunteers, the written plan means nothing.

I see this all the time, and have this conversation with many churches that ask the Christian Security Network for “policy templates”. We do not have them or have not developed them because we know exactly what will happen: churches put their names on it and put it on the shelf. They will then boast “We have security and emergency plans in place!” – but they mean nothing if the people on the front lines don’t know about them.

I told this story before, but it bears repeating.

I was with my wife at a meeting in a pretty large church one Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati. It wasn’t about security or anything and there were maybe 30 people there, along with the Senior Pastor.

During one of the breaks, I was speaking in the hallway with a church events director, the Senior Pastor and my wife. This director asked me what I do for a living and I told her I try to help churches become safer and more secure. She perked up and said, “We have emergency plans, in fact we have an AED” (Automatic External Defibrillator – you should know this – saves people’s lives during a cardiac arrest).

I told her that was great (thinking to myself a church of this size should have multiple AED’s, but I was happy to hear they had at least one).

Then came the awkward moment when I looked at my watch and said “OK, I am going into cardiac arrest, what do you do?” She looked a bit confused and the Senior Pastor was silent. She asked, “What do you mean?”

I looked at my watch again and said “I have six minutes until I am dead, where is your AED and who is going to administer CPR/AED?” She fumbled with her words a bit and then admitted that she didn’t really even know where the AED was kept or how to use it, but since they were such a big church, if something were to happen during service time they would yell for a doctor or nurse and surely someone would be there to help.

I looked at my watch and stated “I am dead in two minutes, this is not a Sunday service, and I am in your church now with a couple dozen people, what do you do for me right now?” at which time she admitted “I guess we don’t really have a plan”, to which the Senior Pastor rolled his eyes and walked away.

Do you see the point here?

Having a written plan, and even the equipment, is not enough and that is why we don’t give out pre-written templates. Write your own, because in the course of doing so you will find things unique to your church that is different than any other – one size does not fit all and just being able to say you have a written plan in not enough.

The second lesson from this lawsuit is time is critical. Whether you are talking about a person having a heart attack, someone violent in your church with knives or a gun, or tornado quickly approaching, your organization’s response better be measured in minutes, because lives are on the line and your organization invited these folks into the church so there is a reasonable expectation of security and safety.

When I have served as Chief Security Officer in public venues, training was a constant, and not just with my staff, but all staff and volunteers. It was not unusual for me to walk up to any staff member with a CPR mannequin (I think her name is “Annie”), toss “Annie” on the ground in front of the staff member and say “One of our visitors just collapsed in front of you, GO” and I start a stopwatch. The staff member and my security personnel better be up to “Annie” within six minutes and have her hooked up with an AED.

Afterwards we would go over the situation, laugh a bit at some of the mistakes, but they would be documented, sometimes there would be re-training, but it kept them on their toes.

I am not sure if staff and volunteers ever really liked these types of drills, but they did tolerate them and the practice did show when an actual incident would take place, my team was always prepared to do the best they could. Did people die that we tried to save, yes. Could anyone blame us for attempting to save a life, no. My staff did what they practiced and what was reasonable and prudent.

Plans, practice, testing, and documentation—all are critical and all will be scrutinized in a court of law.

The church’s obligation to protect is no different than Nordstrom, and I am not speaking as an attorney because I am not one, but I have worked with enough of them, been involved in lawsuits, have testified in court, and follow legal matters relating to negligent security pretty closely.

Almost every type of organization has been hit with a negligent security lawsuit and has lost; businesses, shopping malls, apartment complexes, hotels, hospitals, etc. have all paid multi-million dollar judgments.

And if you think your insurance company will cover you in these types of lawsuits, think again.

If your church went through the motions to develop plans, but never really communicated it with anyone or trained, practiced, and tested on these procedures, your liability insurance may not cover your church because you did not do what is reasonable and prudent.

Note to Church Leadership: if protecting lives is not enough of a motivation for you to get moving on creating a Safety Ministry in your church, think about the monetary loss you might face that could put your church out of business.

There is no tomorrow; start taking action today!

This article is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is shared with the understanding that neither the author nor Tony Cooke Ministries is engaged in rendering legal, accounting, psychological, medical or other professional services. Laws and regulations are continually changing, and can vary according to location and time. No representation is made that the information herein is applicable for all locations and times. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.