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Violence at U.S. Churches

Posted by Charles "Chuck" Chadwick, Jr. on

May 6, 2014

Violence at U.S. Churches

New report shows decline in violence at U.S. churches in 2013.


Editor's Note: In coming weeks, we'll publish follow-up articles detailing tips and best practices for church leaders regarding how to handle some of the deadly force incidents discussed in this article.

Update: This post has been corrected to clarify Tina Lewis Rowe's background.

The number of violent incidents that took place on the properties of churches and faith-based organizations nationwideand the number of deaths resulting from those incidentsdecreased last year, according to an annual report.

In 2013, 132 "deadly force incidents" occurred and 45 people died, based on the headlines and reports compiled and categorized by Carl Chinn, a church security consultant who speaks regularly across the country to churches and religious groups. In 2012, 139 incidents took place, resulting in 76 deaths.

The declines on both fronts were welcome news after an "awful year" in 2012the worst on record for Chinn's report since its inception in 1999. "There were almost as many attacks [in 2013], but a smaller percentage resulted in deaths," Chinn says. "For that I'm grateful."

While the numbers still represent a miniscule percentage of the country's religious propertiesmore than 300,000 church and faith-based organizations operate in the United Stateshe says the statistics help leaders understand trends and patterns to prepare better.

"Knowledge and understanding are the first steps toward being effective in the protection of others," says Chinn, who was part of the security team that stopped an active shooter at New Life Church in Colorado Springs in 2007. "When we don't understand how frequent these things do happen, that's denial."

Changes in triggers

Chinn defines "deadly force incidents" as any act that could (or did) result in a death or that requires intervention that could result in a death.

Upon categorizing the various cases from 2013, Chinn noted one change among the top three types of "triggers" that lead to these violent situations. While robberies and domestic "spillovers" ranked first and second respectively in 2013as they typically do each yearpersonal conflicts fell out of the top three, replaced by cases involving an individual with a known mental health issue.

Reporting methods may be one reason for the shift.

"The national spotlight is now on mental illness, so whenever there's a confirmed report of a homicide involving mental illness, it's a little easier to get that information from the police reports," Chinn notes.

Cases involving a mental health matter increased 5 percent in 2013 compared to 2012, Chinn adds.

Health privacy laws have made it difficult for agencies to identify and track individuals diagnosed with illnesses and share information, he says, making it critical for state legislatures to consider ways to loosen restrictions. "We need to know when someone is having problems and get them the right treatment."

Robberies remain a primary concern, although the circumstances with these types of cases aren't always as they seem. In some instances, the church or someone from the church is the specific target. In other instances, a robbery may take place nearby, only to wind up on the church's property. Chinn concedes it's difficult to clearly discern the original intent in each robbery, but he hopes to more specifically isolate circumstances in future reports. Either way, church leaders must be alert to any scenario, he adds.

Domestic spillovers involve a family or romantic relationship that leads to some type of confrontation on church property. Between 2008 and 2013, such cases grew 2 percent overall.

Other notable stats from the 2013 report:

Nine cases involved personal conflicts between two or more individuals (nondomestic relationships);

Seven cases involved gang activity;

Six cases involved attempted (or successful) abductions of children;

Five cases involved clear religious bias (against any religion, not just Christian);

A quarter of the cases involved at least one perpetrator with some type of affiliation to the church or religious organization, whether past or present. "I always caution churches when they start talking about intruder alerts," Chinn says. "Yes, we should be concerned about intruders, but one out of four of these deadly force incidents has nothing to do with an intruderit's someone related to the church."

Think Prevention

Preventive planning is critical, Chinn says, particularly because so much of what churches do is volunteer driven. It's one of the reasons why Chinn actively promotes the Gatekeepers Program in the western U.S. for the National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management, and presents at the organization's events, including its 10th annual national conference this August in Colorado Springs.

Tina Lewis Rowe, who spent 25 years with the Denver Police Department and 8 years as the presidentially appointed U.S. Marshal for Colorado, consults houses of worship on their safety planning and agrees with a preventive approach. She says Chinn's report is a useful tool for understanding trends affecting churches. Rowe encourages church leaders to occasionally run online searches using keywords that include "church" and then specific types of risk concerns.

On a broader base, she says preparation shouldn't focus solely on potentially violent situations.

"Many more churches burn down by accident than get shot up on purpose," Rowe says.

Rowe instructs church leaders to walk through their buildings room by room, and to sit in each room long enough to develop a list of "what if" scenarios ranging from the seemingly insignificant to the most serious. Then, with each one, the conversations should turn to responses.

"If you really have a plan, the words will roll out of your mouth," Rowe says. "But what really happens is that we discover we've only talked about it and we don't really have a plan."

The 5 P's

A good starting point for all churches is to assess what Rowe calls "the 5 P's": people, places, property, programs, and processes in places of worship (she provides a variety of free assessments and materials by request through her website). And while a security team is a good step, she emphasizes the involvement of the entire church is essential, not only for making certain everyone is on the same page, but also to raise everyone's awareness.

That's true for crime prevention and response to violent situations. That's also true for playground safety and fire prevention. "There is no program that will energize every age group in a place of worship like a whole church safety and security programbecause everyone cares about their particular people and programs," Rowe says. "It keeps you in a state of readiness."


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