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Opinion >

Beware of the siege mentality

Churches are investing in the wrong kinds of security measures, says Nick Tolson

ISTOCK

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False friend: CCTV does not prevent crime in churches

Credit: ISTOCK

False friend: CCTV does not prevent crime in churches

I WAS at the Home Office recently as part of the Places of Worship Security Panel, considering applications by churches and other places of worship for grants to install security systems to reduce the incidence of hate crime against the individual applicants.

The Home Office has allocated £2.4 million, over the next three years, to help churches and places of worship to improve their security (News, 29 July). In total, the panel had 285 applications for the initial grant, of which 225 were Christian churches, 36 were mosques, 11 were Sikh gurdwaras, and three were other places of worship.

The criteria for applying for the funds were strict. The money could be used only to improve security in places of worship that provided evidence of hate crimes that had occurred, unless they provided evidence that there was a likelihood of hate crimes against them.

The panel had expected that most of the applicants would be mosques or other places of worship rather than churches. (Synagogues were not involved in this scheme, as they have been awarded funding from a separate scheme). Surprisingly, 80 per cent of the applicants were churches, raising a red flag that there may be a problem with anti-Christian hate crime which is not being addressed. While there are many more churches than other places of worship, hate crime is not usually associated with Christianity.

What surprised me, however, was not that churches suffer from hate crime — we have known this anecdotally for years, but do not have the research statistics to prove it — but the response of churches, the police, and other statutory authorities to how to tackle and best protect churches.

Almost all the applications were for the installation of CCTV in and around the church. There seems to be a common thought that CCTV stops crimes because it is a deterrent to offenders. This is simply not true. CCTV is a useful tool: it is most effective at providing evidence after an offence, and in assisting the police in identifying offenders. It does not, however, prevent the crime, especially when it comes to the types of crimes which most often occur in churches.

Theft, violence, and disturbances in churches are usually committed by people who are under the influence of a substance such as alcohol or drugs, or are suffering from a mental-health episode. These types of offenders do not care or recognise that they are being recorded by CCTV at the time of the offence. Therefore, the decision to put CCTV into a church should be looked at carefully, and those making the decision need to recognise its limitations.

That said, every church should have a camera outside its entrance to record the comings and goings, so that, should an incident occur, there is evidence of who came in or out of the building. But it is doubtful that a church would need, for instance, 16 cameras all over the inside and outside to record every part of the building. The grant money would be better spent on looking at other aspects of how the church operates.

 

MORE worrying was the trend of many of the places of worship that applied for the money to place fences, bollards, and gates around their buildings. One applicant wanted £165,000 to put metal roller-shutters on every window to protect the glass. If there had been justification for these types of security items, such as large amounts of crime, then we would have seriously considered granting the money. But the truth was that, when we checked the evidence provided, there was no evidence of a continuing problem with hate crime, and, in most cases, little evidence of any regular crimes against these churches and other places of worship.

In almost every application, however, there seemed to be great fear that was not supported by the evidence of crime. Many applicants mentioned the murder in Rouen last year of the Roman Catholic priest Fr Jacques Hamel (News, 29 July). Some Muslim applicants mentioned the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich as proof that they felt at risk from the community around them (News, 31 May 2013). Some even mentioned the perceived increase in hate crime since the Brexit vote as the reason for wanting to increase their security, despite not themselves having suffered any crime.

The main issue that I had with this was that, to get to our panel, the applications had gone through both police and Home Office officials’ scrutiny, and they had agreed that the best way to deal with the fear of hate crime was to build fences, window grills, gates, and bollards, and generally physically separate the place of worship from its community. This attitude is a fundamental mistake.

The fear of hate and crime is shown in the locations of the people who feel at risk. It may be expected that churches in areas where other faiths are present in large numbers would be the most worried about suffering hate crime; in fact, the opposite is true. There were applications from Cornwall, Somerset, North Wales, and Suffolk — all areas of predominately white Christians. The recorded hate crimes in these areas were few, but the fear of hate crime was high.

This is not to say that hate crimes cannot happen in these areas, because we know that they do; but the crimes tend to be isolated incidents that are carried out by individual offenders. At least, that is what we think. Further research is soon to be carried out to see whether this is true.

Churches and other places of worship must not fall into a siege mentality. Physically separating themselves from their communities just increases the suspicion and the actual crime that occurs in the building. It is a fact that the more overt security there is in a community building, the more crime occurs, and the more the fear of crime is increased in the community.

We do not need castles and drawbridges: we need openness and welcome. There are many simple security measures that can protect a place of worship without becoming oppressive. Do not think that the police and the statutory authorities have all the answers: often, they do not understand exactly how churches should operate in their communities.

Take advice from many sources, and do not be so fearful. Crime can cause problems, but effective security causes problems to criminals. Effective does not mean oppressive.

 

Nick Tolson is the Christian representative on the Places of Worship Security Panel of the Counter Extremism Directorate at the Home Office. He is a former police constable and a Research Fellow of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

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