How Safe Is Your Place of Worship?

San Diego county sheriff deputies stand in front of the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 28, 2019, in Poway, Calif. A man opened fire Saturday inside the synagogue near San Diego as worshippers celebrated the last day of a major Jewish holiday. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

By Christopher P. Scheitle and Jeffery T. Ulmer. Christopher P. Scheitle is an assistant professor of Sociology at West Virginia University and Jeffery T. Ulmer is a professor of sociology and criminology, at Pennsylvania State University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1. This is an updated version of an article originally published on Nov. 2, 2018.

Many Americans may be wondering what security measures are in place at their place of worship after a gunman’s attack on a San Diego synagogue service this past weekend left one person dead and three others wounded.

The same question was raised after 11 people were killed in the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The San Diego synagogue, Chabad Poway, had no security guards – it couldn’t afford them. An off-duty border patrol agent was among the congregants, and there are reports he both tried to disarm the shooter and then chased after him outside of the synagogue.

Chabad Poway Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein told The New York Times that a hired security guard may have stopped any attack before it began.

“This may have been prevented if we had that,” said Goldstein, who was injured in the attack.

President Donald Trump also alluded to this question when he said “the results would have been far better” if the Tree of Life congregation had armed guards or members.

According to news reports at the time, the Tree of Life synagogue did not have armed guards present at the time of the shooting. Many community leaders rebuked Trump’s statements and argued that increasing armed security was not the solution.

We are a sociologist and criminologist who in 2015 conducted a national study of religious congregations’ experiences with, fears of and preparations for crime.

Our study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, featured a survey of over 1,300 places of worship and in-depth interviews with more than 50 congregational leaders.

We asked each leader – individuals with significant knowledge of the congregation’s operations – about the congregation’s history of crime, its security measures, the individual’s assessment of future crime risk and fears, and a variety of questions about the congregation’s operations and neighborhood.

While neither the Chabad Poway nor the Tree of Life synagogue was part of our study, the results of this work may hold useful insights for conversations about crime and security in places of worship. Here’s what we found.

Threats and fear

Crimes, most commonly vandalism and theft, were committed at about 40% of congregations in the year prior to the survey. This overall percentage was not significantly different across religious traditions.

When we dug deeper, though, we found that synagogues and mosques deal with crime-related problems that are much different than the average church.

A Fairfax County police officer controls traffic as worshippers make their way to the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, just outside of Washington, Dec. 11, 2015.  Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Our survey found, for instance, that synagogues and mosques were three times more likely than congregations overall to have received an explicit threat in the prior year.

Respondents also reported significantly greater fear that congregants would be assaulted or murdered on the congregation’s property. This helps explain another pattern we found: Jewish and Muslim congregations are in many ways far ahead of congregations representing other religious traditions when it comes to thinking about and implementing security measures.

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Source: Religion News Service