Protecting Religious Spaces: What Every Designer of Sacred Places Should Consider
The tragedy in Pittsburgh, the worst attack on a Jewish congregation in U.S. history, should prompt all architects and designers to consider how architecture and design might respond. I spoke with Benny M. Burrell, a retired police officer and a crime prevention specialist based in Virginia who consults in the realm of security and safety of religious spaces. Burrell has completed extensive training in crime prevention and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles. We discussed security and safety issues that every faith community with worship facilities, and their designers, should consider.
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
BMB: Benny M. Burrell
What is your view on the threats to religious buildings today? Are they more vulnerable? Where do these threats come from?
Houses of worship are more vulnerable to attack today than ever. This affects those not only in big cities but also in small towns and communities, places where people might not be aware of the vulnerability. The threats are not just because of religious intolerance, but also, as we have seen in such cases as the attack on the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the recent mass shooting in Pittsburgh, due to unaddressed mental health issues, racial tensions, lack of cultural awareness, and a blatant disregard for humanity on the part of some.
What might be the most productive first steps to take to improve security, and safety awareness, in religious buildings? How should a congregation and clergy respond?
The most productive way to raise awareness and security is to collaborate with local law-enforcement professionals to complete a safety assessment of the buildings and grounds. After the initial assessment is done, the next step would be to determine the most relevant plan of action. The clergy and congregation should participate in this process by becoming keenly aware of the safety and security needs for the place of worship and building those into the plan of action. They also need to go for safety and security training and guidance.
How might increased safety and security be balanced against the traditional architectural design of many sacred buildings?
The process of conducting an assessment will bring stakeholders together and demonstrate why it might be necessary to revisit a traditional or existing design to adjust to present-day best practices. Because of the increased security risks, the architectural design must be reviewed for necessary changes to benefit the congregation and its mission. Some architects might be more attuned to safety and security concerns than others. I know that in my own experience, engineers have been involved in training sessions and this allows them to see both sides of the content being examined. That’s vital. Bringing in the architect’s or the liturgical designer’s perspective is productive for law enforcement professionals as well because it can give them a better idea why a house of worship might be designed in a particular way and why it’s important. It helps to establish a balance between the two.
Tell us about the concept and practice of “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).”
There was a lot of research in the 1970s regarding how the design of buildings actually affects how space can be controlled, how it can be surveilled, and how to accomplish “territorial reinforcement.” The principles of CPTED involve the approach of architectural design through space management theory. Strategies address natural access control, natural surveillance, and territorial reinforcement. Access control could include guards, locks, and the character of the space. Monitoring might include police patrols, lighting, window placement, cameras. Territorial reinforcement requires strategies that might promote security awareness by the users of facilities, such as signs that say that the installation is alarmed or under surveillance.
Can you talk about the concept of “target hardening”? What are some examples?
“Target hardening” is merely developing a security-conscious philosophy to reduce or manage the risk of incidents or threats. An example might be to start with a doorknob with a key. You next might install a deadbolt lock on the door, and then a sign that says that the area is being videotaped—that is target hardening. Notifying people that the place is under surveillance, installing more lighting, better locks, eliminating massive landscape elements such as shrubs where people might hide, removing ladders from outside the building so they can’t be used to break in, fencing in propane tanks with a locked gate to discourage someone from turning that into a target. These are all physical deterrents—they enhance security and safety—but there is a psychological message as well: this house of worship is protected, people are watching, don’t attempt to breach security. Seeing these security measures also encourages people to feel safer in a house of worship.
How can a security/safety consultant be helpful in the design of a new religious building or the upgrading of an existing one? How can congregations and architects work with them?
Seeking the guidance of a security consultant is most helpful because safety/security measures can be quickly identified and addressed in the preliminary stages of design, which will save time and money by pinpointing issues. It would be best practice for architects to have safety consultants if not law-enforcement professionals on their team of specialists, and to do site surveys before the design progresses. If an architect is trained in CPTED, that’s even better. Seeking guidance is most helpful early in the design process—making the right decisions early on. It’s harder to change design decisions later in the process.
Besides making buildings and grounds more physically safe and secure, congregations and clergy also need to consider other measures, such as policy and procedures before, during, and after an incident. Can you give us an overview of these realms of preparedness?
It’s highly recommended that policies and procedures be put in place so they can help people to respond before, during, and after an incident. The same proactive prevention and crisis response strategies that colleges, hospitals, and schools use are recommended and can serve as a model for sacred buildings. These policies should describe lockdown procedures, evaluation, and notification processes. This can be utilized as a guide to users and building administrators to reducing further risk. This is not only for security and safety in the case of an incident such as an active shooter, but also before, during, and after natural threats such as fire, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. You need to train the congregations and staff, even small groups, because many houses of worship have lean staffing.
What are some online resources that faith communities can consult in considering safety/security issues in sacred buildings?
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has many programs that cover a range of topics, which you can find here. There is also program information available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Center for Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships. FEMA also provides many no-cost online training programs related to safety and security awareness. The American Crime Prevention Institute offers resources on its website. The National Crime Prevention Council has a guide, “Faith Community and Criminal Justice Collaboration.” The American Red Cross has excellent information resources on its website. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a guide to Emergency Preparedness and Response. Also, don’t overlook resources available from your own state and local police and fire departments.
Featured image: Tree of Life Synagogue, via Aaron Josefczeyk/Reuters.