When a crime takes place in a church, it has a significant effect on the fear of crime in the community. People think that if the church is not safe, then nobody is. Unfortunately, the people responsible for churches in Britain do not always realise this, and take minimal action to protect the property. In the US, however, a different approach is bearing fruit.
The last US national census states that 76 per cent of the population listed their faith as Christian, and, of those, 68 per cent attend church at least once a month. This compares startlingly with the most recent UK census, in 2001, when 72 per cent of the population listed their faith as Christian, but only four per cent attended church regularly. I am convinced that one of the reasons for this is that about 70 per cent of the churches in the UK are closed for most of the time.
Whenever I ask those who look after a church why it is locked during the day, the answer is almost always that they are worried about crime. If their doors are open, then it seems a reasonable argument that criminals may enter and commit offences.
In my research, however, I find that churches that open their doors during the day actually have about half the level of crime of churches that lock their doors. The theory that “locked doors mean less crime” is an urban myth that has a damaging effect on the life of a church.
I was surprised that almost every church that I visited in the US was open for its community. For most of the Americans who are responsible for church buildings, the thought that they would lock their community out did not even occur to them. This was a cultural attitude that was evident in all 63 churches I visited.
Crime did occur at a very similar level to that in the UK, but the response to it was that the community came to the aid of the church by donating money or practical skills to repair the damage. This may be because a majority of the community attends church and people are very supportive of churches that suffer crime, even if they do not attend that particular church.
I found that the approach of the local law-enforcement agencies was vital in involving the whole community in response to a crime. Police officers and sheriffs are much more involved in their communities than in the UK. They will drink coffee in local cafés, have lunch in the diner, and, once out on patrol, they do not return to the station until the end of their shift.
This is something that used to be understood when I was a police officer in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the difficulty in quantifying the effectiveness of such an approach means that it is not part of current police strategy.
In the US, other emergency services, such as the fire department, will bring their tools to repair damage, or assist with fund-raising to help the church to recover its losses. I also found several examples where churches of different denominations assisted each other after a crime.
In the UK, however, I believe churches do not get the support of the community — not because the people do not care (72 per cent of the population call themselves Christian), but because churches do not engage enough with their communities. The starting point for churches in the US is that they are open.
IT IS undoubtedly a risk to open during the day when no one is able to watch the building. In the majority of cases, however, with some simple crime-reduction steps, churches can open. It does not affect your insurance cover if you are open during the day and you take sensible steps to protect your valuables.
Steps can include producing a simple postcard to deliver to your neighbours with contact details of someone they can alert if they see something suspicious at the church, and inviting immediate neighbours (personally) to a barbecue or similar church event. One of the most successful things that reduces crime is to encourage a police officer or Community Support Officer to come into the church regularly for coffee.
Churches should always make sure that they have carried out a crime-reduction assessment. This will require them to remove anything movable and valuable, and to ensure that the vestry is very secure. Most importantly, churches should make sure they have a burglar alarm that notifies someone when it is activated.
Often, several churches in the same area are hit by crime; yet churches rarely discuss solutions to these problems together. They soldier on regardless, as if a lack of knowledge about security was something to be hidden rather than to be addressed by working with other churches and the organisations that have specialist skills.
In the US, churches are not afraid to ask for help. There are many companies selling security products to them. Round tables of churches of different denominations are being formed, and security is the one subject that they can agree on. Americans are good at recognising that they do not have the skills to deal with a particular crime problem, and seeking professional assistance.
They feel that their church is there for the community. They appreciate that this approach puts them at risk sometimes, and that they may suffer from crime occasionally, but that the support of the community is vital.
The US system by which people communicate with each other when they are in need is a very effective way of solving crime. Providing skills, people, or even money is a good way of helping each other. Churches in the UK need to be braver: they need to take some carefully considered risks to open their doors, and become part of the whole community again.
Nick Tolson is the national co-ordinator of Churchwatch, which provides free security seminars for churches (www.nationalchurchwatch.com). His visit to the US was funded by a grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.