Incident in Antioch
On September 24, 2017, there was an active killer incident at a church in Antioch, Tennessee. One person was killed in the parking lot. Six more were wounded inside the building, including the pastor. The assailant was a person known to the members of the congregation, but was not recognized during the attack since he wore a ski mask.
What is an active killer (active shooter)? An active killer is a person who is armed (usually with firearms and/or explosives) who attacks or attempts to attack a group of people, intending to kill as many as possible. There are several motives an active killer may have: mental derangement, revenge, ethnic/racial/political/religious hatred, or terror. Most active killers act alone, but some have accomplices.
Churches as Soft Targets
Targets for active shooters are classified as hard or soft. A hard target is difficult to get to for any of several reasons. It may be well-walled with hard-to-breach fences, gated entries, and well-placed, well-trained, and well-armed security personnel.
Soft targets are easier to reach, and once reached easier to attack. According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, a soft target is “a ...[Click Below to Read Entire Article]
Among these are open-air venues (such as a street fair), concerts, or other public events. Besides being soft, these targets are made more attractive by providing large numbers of potential victims. Churches and other places of worship are generally considered soft targets for a number of reasons:
- Churches stand for a religious truth many find narrow minded and offensive.
- Churches are open to the public with open access to anybody during services.
- Church service times are publically known or easy to find online and elsewhere.
- A number of churches in the United States are gun-free zones. They may not recognize their own vulnerability.
- Most churches have no Safety/Security Ministry. 
The key to making a place of worship safer, more secure, is hardening the target. As churches, we want to remain open to the public, welcoming to those in need, to those seeking God and fellowship with God’s people. We want our light to shine and our salt to be available. Therefore, turning our church into a Cheyenne Mountain type fortress (or even a lesser fort) is not an option.
However, we can make our church not as soft without making it forbidding by making it harder for an active killer to get in unnoticed and unchallenged. This is in addition to training our safety and security teams how to respond to an actual attack.
How They Get In
Most active killers get in through the front door or a side door, depending on the location of target activities. During a worship service, the front door is the shortest route to the targets (victims). This is where the shooters in Fort Worth (1999), Colorado Springs (2007), and Antioch, TN (2017) came in. A side door was used in Charleston (2015) where the killer sat in on a Bible study in a classroom. The church shooting in Brookfield, WI (2005) was an insider attack by a member of the congregation.
Not all active shooters come in the main door or the one closest to an event. Some will seek a way to enter secretly and open the attack once in. This could be a door not being used that moment by parishioners. It could be an unlocked window. The attackers may find a way to quietly force entry without alerting anyone in the church.
Antioch - Entry
In Antioch, Tennessee, the active killer came in the front door, but was unseen until coming in. Witnesses from the neighborhood saw him sitting in his SUV in the parking lot with the engine running. His presence was not noticed in the church until congregants heard shots as he killed a woman in the parking lot after the end of the morning service. Then he came “around the corner” into the foyer, where he shot the pastor, who was greeting people leaving the service. He kept firing as he entered the sanctuary, wounding six persons inside the building.
VisibilityMost church buildings were not designed with security in mind. It is easy to assume that someone in the foyer should have seen the occupied vehicle idling in the parking lot. The truth is that no one inside the front door could have seen any vehicle in the parking lot unless it was in one of three handicap slots directly in front or a few in the extreme front corners. A Google Maps satellite view shows why.
Notice that most of the parking is to the right of the front door (to the left as you’re looking out) and toward the back. The sanctuary has two windows high on the right side, which means no one sitting down could have seen vehicles in the parking lot.
From photos and TV footage in news stories, it appears
the gunman parked close to the church on that side, screened by another SUV. It is unlikely that a security team member in the foyer would have seen him until he came to the door. It is also not certain that someone would step up to a window in the sanctuary, look out, see the SUV, and become suspicious enough to report it to the pastor or a security team member.
Facility assessment is one key part of a Church Security Assessment. A facility assessment inspects the facilities of the church (buildings and grounds) in regard to fire safety, walking and driving safety, building integrity, weather readiness, healthfulness, and preventing burglaries, vandalism, and other crimes. Aspects related to preparation for an active shooter/killer are access, security, and communications. These are to be evaluated in light of stopping an active killer.
Access – Assess all access points
This includes all points where a person may gain entry to the building (or outside, to the grounds). This includes doors, windows, larger vents and hatches (such as on the roof), etc. Access control also means being able to block or hinder the movement of an intruder inside the building. There are questions to ask and things to look for in each of these:
- Can they be easily forced opened?
- Can the latches be bypassed (such as by taking out hinge pins)?
- How secure are the locks?
- Can the locks be operated remotely?
- Do the door windows have security mesh or glazing?
- Do all the windows have glazing (glass)? A broken, open or empty window is an invitation to intruders, including active killers.
- Are all window frames in good condition? Are they sturdy enough to resist prying?
- Can the windows be securely locked?
Hatches and Vents –
- How secure are the latches and locks on hatches and vents large enough for a small person to come through?
- Are there security barriers preventing vehicles from crashing into doors (or at least slowing them down considerably)?
Also look at doors to classrooms, offices, the nursery, restrooms, and the sanctuary. Can they be locked and blockaded? Can someone hiding in a restroom deadbolt the door? Are there corridors that can become fatal funnels (where an active killer can be trapped)? Upgrades to doors and windows will be worth the cost if they prevent or limit the impact of an active killer.
Security – Assess facility security components
Security components in a church may include intruder alarms, closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras, and lighting.
The alarms can have sensors not only on doors, but on windows. Hard-to-see access points, such as hatches and large vents, should have alarms, since that is probably the only way to know if a would-be intruder is trying to use them. If the church has several outside doors and an armed person – apparently intent on attack – is spotted approaching, an electronic emergency-lock system can lock all the doors with the push of a button (if this is too costly, just lock all the doors except the main one).
Security cameras, especially CCTV, let security team members see more. Cameras on corners of the building could have let a security team member see the idling SUV in the parking lot at the church in Antioch. If accessed on a pocket-sized device, such as a blue-toothed smart phone, the team member would not have to be in one location to monitor what was outside.
Lighting is a subject all its own. The first consideration for outside lighting is safety for those walking or driving outside after dark. This means the walkways and the parking lot need to be seen by those using them. But it also has a security angle. This means it reveals persons outside the building at access points. The light should not blind the viewer, making an intruder essentially invisible.
Communication – Identify existing communication devices
Effective communication is the key to effective coordination during a crisis, such as an active shooter incident. It is essential for the team leader, team members, church staff, and the people making good decisions. What are the communication channels available in your church? –
- Room specific?
- Two-way radios?
- Twitter account?
- Internet website and social media?
- Digital signage (electronic signboards)?
- Text messaging?
- One Call?
The important thing is getting the right information to those who need it when it is needed.
In Bible times, strong walls and gates were a vital part of a city’s defense. And within a city was at least one fortress for holding out if the enemy got into the city. Our church facilities should help us defend against an active killer.
The next article in this series is “Katie, Bar the Door” - Lockouts and Lockdowns.
Sheepdog Church Security Training Bundle “Active Shooter Neutralization and Lock Down Drills v3”.
Church Security Guide chapter “Active Shooter Response and Lock-downs for Churches”
Church Security Articles