Churches normally are considered safe places, but even houses of worship aren’t immune from crimes.
That is the thinking behind a new initiative undertaken by the Mount Airy Police Department in conjunction with the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission. It is aimed at providing training to help churches take preventative measures to protect themselves.
In recent years, various local churches have been victims of crimes such as break-ins as well as thefts of valuable equipment including heat pumps and copper materials. One such case occurred last month at Fancy Gap Baptist Church on West Lebanon Street, where two Trane air-conditioning units were discovered missing.
Congregations also have been hit with more serious crimes, which was the case in July 2009 when Closer Walk Baptist Church on Roberts Street was heavily damaged by a fire that was intentionally set.
It’s tragic for houses of worship to be targeted in such ways, said Lt. Kelly Hiatt, community services officer with the Mount Airy Police Department — and that special protective measures are needed for them. “But that’s the world we live in today,” Hiatt said.
City police are trying to be proactive in the matter by launching the new training program through the Governor’s Crime Commission.
“They had contacted us several months ago,” Hiatt said of a call from agency officials to gauge local law enforcement interest in the initiative. “And we thought that would be good, as many churches as we’ve got around here.”
This led to an initial House of Worship Threat Assessments and Vulnerability Analysis Workshop being conducted last month at the city police department, which was led by Starr Barbaro of the Governor’s Crime Commission.
The 30 people who took part in the two-day class included pastors, ushers, deacons and other church members.
In one segment of the class, participants learned about measures to decrease opportunities for individuals to commit crimes while churches are not in session.
Hiatt said this addresses the fact that the buildings and grounds usually are occupied on a limited basis, including Sundays and possibly one or two other days of the week.
“Of course, any time that you have something that’s unoccupied for a length of time, that makes it vulnerable — just like somebody’s house,” he said.
This part of the training included such steps as placing locks on HVAC or other equipment or erecting enclosures around the units. The idea is to make it harder for criminals to remove such items, Hiatt said.
Another portion of the instruction dealt with steps for handling situations such as someone trying to disrupt services. Hiatt said there have been occasions when local churches encountered issues with people who might have been denied financial or other assistance — “maybe somebody they’ve had a problem with.”
Related precautions can include forming a safety team to monitor activities while church services are under way, as well as implementing lockdown procedures similar to those of schools.
On the second day of training, class participants divided into teams and actually conducted threat assessments at several different churches in the area. They then reported their findings to other class members.
The recent program was considered quite successful, with class members learning procedures they could take back and implement at their churches.
Law enforcement officers who were involved — including members of the Surry Sheriff’s Office and Yadkinville Police Department, in addition to city police — also came away with information that will assist other congregations in the community which could not have representatives present.
Mount Airy police and the Governor’s Crime Commission are planning another round of training next spring. Representatives of any church in the area who wish to take part can contact Lt. Kelly Hiatt at the Mount Airy Police Department at 786-3561.
In the meantime, officials of churches desiring to have threat assessments completed also are encouraged to call.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.