The recent shooting at at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, CA was an absolute tragedy. When we look at active attacker incidents in houses of worship we need to examine the behaviors of the attacker, as one of the many pieces of the puzzle of prevention and preparation. There are two facets to this attack that are important reminders for those of us serving in church safety and security ministries. One of these is our anticipation of when an attack will occur. The other is the attack timing chosen by the attacker. Please don’t forget we never blame the victims of these evil individuals, but we should desire to learn from their losses and work to prevent and prepare for future events.
Often times when people think of security for their houses of worship they focus on their primary worship service times. Many churches’ will focus on Sunday morning and Synagogues on Saturday morning. While we certainly need to protect these services, they are not the only times we observe attacks taking place. When we analyze the data we see attacks take place during other days of the week and at special events and Bible studies.
The recent attack at Geneva Presbyterian Church took place during a luncheon to celebrate one of the pastors. The attacker did not enter the luncheon and immediately start shooting as we often think active shooters will. Rather he executed his plan of securing some of the doors to prevent the escape by his victims and staged backpacks containing his extra equipment in the banquet hall. He then mingled with those attending the luncheon for approximately twenty minutes before engaging in his attack.
The attacker at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC chose to attack a Wednesday night prayer gathering. He joined the prayer meeting and participated in it for about an hour before commencing with his attack.
Often times when we think of active shooter events our minds go to a sudden, rapid assault. Although many attacks do take place in this way, we must recognize the timing of an attack is controlled by the attacker. Both the Geneva and Emanuel attackers lied in wait in plain sight interacting with their victims prior to the attack. Yes, there were pre attack indicators, but they were dismissed by those in attendance, prior to the assaults, as often occurs. The attackers also determined the times of their attacks and chose not to attack during the usual worship services for the churches.
What can we learn from these attacks?
- Attacks may occur anytime people are on the church’s property. The FBI Identified 15 active shooter events at Houses of Worship from 2000-2019. One-third of those attacks took place when organizations were not holding their primary worship services.
- We all want visitors to attend our ministry services and events, but we need to be aware of new, unfamiliar visitors and ministry team members need to monitor their body language and actions.
- We have to stay vigilante, we can’t let our guard down because someone is participating or communicating with others at the event.