One aspect of security for religious institutions that is often overlooked is the premises liability facing a facility for criminal acts committed by others (third parties) against employees, tenants, visitors, and volunteers.
A case study from one of my consulting clients illustrates some pitfalls to be considered. The organization(s) shall remain unnamed—except to say that the property is in the greater Baltimore area.
I was called upon to give some advice, information, and recommendations to a nonprofit—which had one of its employees pistol whipped robbed, and raped while leaving work.
As part of my audit, I was able to view and tour the premises and interview any and all employees I desired. Some of my findings:
The nonprofit is located on grounds rented of a church, but in an adjacent office building. It is located in a challenging area, not exactly known to be low in crime. As the employee, a mature woman executive, was leaving work one evening, it was dark. She left by herself and headed for a lot owned by the church, and used by its tenants, across the street from the property. Several buildings formed and interior cul-de-sac adjoining the walkway she used to get to the street. As she approached the public sidewalk, 3 men walked past. However, suddenly, one of the men turned toward her brandishing a handgun, and charged at her. She dropped her purse, but he grabbed her and dragged her into the cul-de-sac area. When she began screaming, he pistol-whipped her while forcing her into a stairwell leading to a basement. He then raped her there. He then joined the other two men, who took her purse and ran.
It took her quite a while banging on the door of the building to gain the attention of her boss, who was still inside working (the doorbell was not working outside the locked door).
We won’t mention the lackadaisical police response as that is not germane to my main points, to follow.
When I got into my interviewing, I learned that five other women had been victims of robberies at this location, all the others on the nearby parking lot. As far as I could tell, no additional security measures had been taken. The church property had assorted trash, overflowing trashcans, and a mattress lying on the side lawn during the week of my research. This lack of upkeep violates principles of the Broken Windows theory. In the courtyard/cul-de-sac area, a light on the side of the building was burned out, in the immediate area of where the rape took place. The particular arrangement was not conducive to Crime Prevention by Environmental Design.
As the pastor was showing me around the property, I asked about another side door on the property. He said, oh, that’s always kept locked. When I went down the small stairwell, however, and turned the knob, the door came open, and we walked in. There was a fair amount of property all around-including a computer and 2 DVD players, and no one in sight.
On another day, I walked around the building trying doors, an found another one unlocked, and walked right into the sacristy, and admired the gold chalices and other religious ornaments. I encountered the office manager of the church, who asked: “how did you get in here?”
In addition to the mentioned nonprofit, the church also rented space to a day care center. I went down another small stairway and opened a door leading to it, and there they were: many small children, including a small baby about 4 feet from this unlocked door. Though staff were present, they were way on the other side of the room—with a 20-30 cribs with sleeping kids between them and me—and no straight line to my location. I could have easily taken the baby nearest the door and run to a waiting car—before the staff would have time to effectively react.
So, what can churches and other religious organizations learn from this little tidbit of crime?
First, it is likely that churches, whether they rent to other organizations or not, have a duty to protect their tenants, volunteers, employees, and visitors with some reasonable semblance of security. Likewise, it is likely that employers, such as this nonprofit, have a duty to make a reasonable effort to provide a reasonable level of security for its employees. The extent of duty, or what is required of the property owner, is directly tied to the level of risk (foreseeability) of crime. In general this means that the extent of responsibility can change over time as the level of risk of crime increases or decreases.
Second, is the issue of foreseeability. In this case, 5 other employees had been assaulted and robbed on this premises. Thus, it was foreseeable that similar future crimes would occur against women employees—and the majority of the employees working at the nonprofit were women. Therefore a reasonable and duty-bound employer or property owner/manager would have taken at least some modest measures to brief employees on security issues and establish policies, procedures, and practices to attempt to reduce the risks. The totality of the circumstances indicate the presence of a reasonable foreseeability, and the need for an amount of security.
Third, organizations are responsible if the duty to protect is present, crime is foreseeable, and if the causation of injuries incurred by employees were the result of the lack of reasonably appropriate security measures.
Though the organization and the church were both lacking in money, some modest efforts at security may have prevented, or at least reduced, the likelihood of some of these crimes—particularly the last one. Those efforts would also likely go a long way to reduce the risk and seriousness of a lawsuit or settlement. As it turns out, none of the victims attempted to pursue legal action against either the church or the nonprofit. However, all churches and nonprofits should look to their security programs, such as they are, to evaluate appropriateness, considering the foreseeability of crime in their particular location.
Hopefully, this case study will give some food for thought to both religious institutions and nonprofits.
Gerard Busnuk, CPP, is an independent security consultant based in Baltimore, Maryland. He is certified in security management by ASIS International , and is a member of the International Association of Professional Security consultants. He specializes in security consulting and management for residences, small businesses, and nonprofits. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 443-253-1871. Visit his website at www.buzoncrime.com.
Disclaimer: The articles contained on this website are written for general information purposes only and are not intended to be, and should not be used as, a primary source for making security decisions. The owner of this website may not agree with all of the content contained within the enclosed articles and it is the responsibility of the end users and viewers to evaluate and seek out additional guidance as deemed appropriate for application by local leadership.