Friday, May 13, 2011

Preventing and Responding to Vandalism at Houses of Worship

First published at Church Security Consultant...

photo courtesy of

On April 5th, 2006, two 19 year-old men entered a worship center that was under construction in a Minneapolis suburb and used baseball bats to cause $200,000 in damage (Adam, 2006).  In May of 2010, a monastery in Rochester, MN, responded to years of repeated vandalism, threats, and harassment by installing a variety of security improvements (Brown, 2010).  Of the many challenges faith communities may have to address, one that can affect any worship center is the threat of vandalism.  While the examples above involved a Hindu temple and a Buddhist monastery, Christian churches have a long and unhappy history of being subjected to vandalism.  Christian congregations, representing the vast majority of worship centers in the U.S., may be expected to suffer the greatest number of incidents.  Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques have long been a target for hate crimes perpetrated by persons with an anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim bias (FBI, 2009).

Vandalism affects urban, suburban, and rural churches, but may take different forms depending on the location of the house of worship.  Urban churches may suffer from the same graffiti and random acts of property damage as other buildings in the surrounding community.  Due to their seclusion damage to rural facilities may go unnoticed for longer periods of time.  Vandalism – sometimes simply called Damage to Property – is a property crime and may be a felony depending on the value of the damage.  Its precise definition and elements will vary from one state to another, but it generally takes the form of “whoever intentionally causes damage to physical property of another without the latter's consent.”  (Minnesota Statute 609.595)  Some vandalism is simply random thoughtless property damage.  Vandalism is sometimes perpetrated during other crimes such as burglary.  An extreme sort of vandalism is arson, which goes beyond simply damaging or defacing property to attempting to destroy it.  Some vandalism is committed with the intent to intimidate the congregation.  Regardless the location or intention, in the end effective vandalism prevention will be part of a holistic crime prevention effort.

It is possible to regard vandalism in two ways, random or targeted.  Random vandalism occurs when unattended youth, gangs, or graffiti artists choose to damage your facility for reasons other than the fact that it houses a church.  Unattended or unsupervised young people, perhaps even from your own congregation, might choose to carve their initials next to those of someone else.  Skateboarders damage your landscaping, handrails, and benches.  Gangs use “tags” – names, symbols, and phrases – to mark their territory.  They may use a wall of your building or a fence on your property, not because it is part of synagogue or mosque, but because you are on the border of contested turf.  Likewise a graffiti artist or “tagger” may choose your wall as his canvas without regard to what goes on inside the building.

Targeted vandalism can take the form of vulgar statements, hateful utterances, or symbols intended to strike fear in the hearts of those who see them.  They may target named individuals, members of church leadership, or cast aspersions on a particular sect.  Neo-Nazi swastikas are scrawled on synagogues, crosses are burned by white supremacists on the lawns of black churches, and in the example given in the opening paragraph, pro-Christian slogans have been painted on the driveway leading to a Buddhist sanctuary.

Crime prevention experts agree that vandalism is a crime that must be reported promptly to police and your insurance agent or property manager.  As soon the damage is documented it must be promptly repaired or covered with a fresh coat of paint.  This will deny the vandals the thrill of seeing their handiwork and the community’s response to it.  By taking care of your church property you will send a signal to the community, your membership, and the vandals that you intend to protect and preserve a quality environment.

There is an important concept in crime prevention call “Broken Window Theory” (Wilson and Kelling, 1982) that argues that damage to a facility that goes unnoticed or un-repaired sends a dangerous signal to the entire community – perpetrator, bystander, and victim alike – that the owner of the property does not care.  Litter uncollected, lawns un-mowed, or a broken window not replaced will attract more disorder and more damage.  A single broken window pane might attract persons who decide to knock out all the other window panes.  That gap in the perimeter of your building might attract persons to enter the building to perpetrate more vandalism, or other offenses such as vagrancy, theft, burglary, or arson.  In extreme cases a run-down facility can become the site of crimes against persons.

Preventing and responding to vandalism and graffiti requires a community effort.  Consult with persons who live in the neighborhood around your church.  There may be others in your community who are experiencing the same problems.  They have a vested interest in the protecting the community you share.  Local schools may also experience vandalism.  The police department’s school resource officer assigned to nearby schools may have information about perpetrators.  Neighboring congregations may be able to look after your property in the same way you report suspicious activity that affects them.  If you do not belong to the neighborhood watch for the area surrounding your facility, join it today.  If there is no community watch, talk with your local law enforcement agency about hosting and leading such an effort.  Participate in National Night Out, Take Back the Night, Crime Stoppers, or other crime prevention programs.

There are some cases that may make you more vulnerable to vandalism, graffiti, or other property damage.  Special considerations include new construction or renovation, where the property is less secure or hidden from view by construction materials.  Make certain that paints and tools are stored securely.  If you own unoccupied property, unused buildings, garages, or storage sheds look after their security.  The may present an attractive nuisance or a hiding place for gangs, inappropriate activity or disordered individuals.  If your church or pastor takes on controversial service projects or hold strong views on social issues you may attract protesters, some of whom may resort to vandalism.  If you operate outreach programs to disadvantaged members of the community you may have to operate in crime prone areas.  This is not a reason not to house the homeless, provide meals, or host recovery meetings; it simply means you must pay close attention to the security of your facilities and the safety of your personnel.  If your sanctuary features irreplaceable artwork, such as statuary or stained glass windows, additional protection may be needed.  If you maintain a cemetery, you may need to schedule extra security, provide lighting, or lock the gates during mischief prone holidays such as Halloween.  If you operate a church school, you may experience the anger of disgruntled students.  Not only is “an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure,” by minimizing opportunities for disorder you may even help deliver potential perpetrators from temptation.

Be prepared to marshal all the resources at your disposal.  Your church hierarchy may be able to offer policy guidance, expert advice, or financial support.  Be sure to involve your insurance agent.  He or she has the resources and expertise of the firm’s underwriters to draw upon.  Local law enforcement crime prevention specialists can help you determine how to effectively respond to vandalism and how to reduce the likelihood it will occur again.  If the vandalism you experience takes the form of a hate crime or terroristic threat, state or federal law enforcement agencies may have the authority to investigate.  You may have police and security professionals in your congregation, or professional security associations in your community, who can provide guidance.  You may choose to create a protection committee or ministry to look after the safety and security of the congregation and its property.  In extreme cases you may choose to work with a security consultant, especially if improvements to lighting, barriers, security cameras, or other systems are needed.  Depending on the nature of the challenge, you may find a consultant willing to assist a non-profit organization on a pro bono basis or for a reduced fee.  There are some consultancies that specialize in church security, such as run by Jim McGuffey, CPP, the host of the Church Security Consultant webside.  

In order to prevent vandalism or to prevent its recurrence, you must examine a variety of solutions.  There is no silver bullet that will work in all cases.  First, make certain that all young people at your facility, whether a school, activity center, or sanctuary are appropriately supervised.  Boredom, peer pressure, and the knowledge that no one is watching may tempt even youngsters in your faith community to misbehavior.  Evaluate your property’s sight lines to determine where there are places of concealment.  Lighting, especially motion sensor lighting, can attract the attention of neighbors and passersby.  Be careful to be a good neighbor when choosing security lighting; glare from your property might cause your neighbors to draw their blinds.  Fences can be both a barrier to prevent problems or a “canvas” for graffiti vandals.  If you choose to erect fences consider using chain link or palisade styles which provide a barrier but do not block sight lines and are not as attractive a target for vandals.  An open gate marks a ceremonial threshold even when open for gatherings, events, or services.  While you will likely be required to leave open a path for emergency vehicles even after hours, some gates might be closed and locked to create a “cul de sac” effect that may deter criminals or make it easier for the police to apprehend them.  There are tamper resistant materials and finishes you can choose for new construction or remodeling, or to address a problem prone area.  Dark finishes are recommended over light colors.  Solid walls can be made less interesting by planting creeping vines or hedges.  Another solution, which may seem counter-intuitive, is to provide artists in your community a dedicated “art wall” on which to create appropriately themed murals.  Some graffiti makers who fancy themselves as artists have a code and are inclined to respect existing artwork (Ross, 2009).  As mentioned earlier, prompt repair or repainting surfaces covered with graffiti is essential to keep a problem from taking hold.  Work with your local police to document the crime appropriately before covering it.

Crime prevention experts recommend prosecuting any vandals caught damaging church property.  Vandals are forcing you to spend money that could have been put to a higher purpose elsewhere.  By taking a strong stand, the congregation, the community, and the offenders will know you care.  If you report these crimes when others do not, you may attract attention to offenses occurring throughout the community.  Youth offenders are not helped by letting them off before adjudication.  You may certainly choose to extend mercy after judgment.  Perhaps you can influence the nature of their sentence – which frequently takes the form of community service – after they have been held accountable for their misconduct.  If you and your protection ministry become adept at preventing and responding to graffiti, you might share the wealth by host church security training for other churches or other institutions in your community.

If you wish to learn more about preventing and responding to vandalism in houses of worship, there are many resources you can use for little or no cost.  Your local ASIS International chapter can direct you to experts and materials.  You can find many free articles and guidelines as well as an online bookstore at its website.  ASIS even sponsors a Houses of Worship Security Working Group.  Your local law enforcement agency – city, country, or state – may offer crime general crime prevention advice and guidance for preventing crimes at churches in particular.  Again, websites hosted by these agencies can be a wealth of knowledge, contacts, and free information.  In fact, a Google search for “preventing church vandalism” will link you to thousands of website resources across the country and around the world.  A vandalism prevention idea from New Zealand might work just fine in New York or New Mexico.  As we discussed earlier some sorts of vandalism attract the interest of federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI – who may have jurisdiction over some hate crimes, or the Bureau of Alcohol Tobaccoand Firearms (BATF) – whose authority includes the investigation of arson and bombings.  These and other federal organizations also offer free educational materials at their websites.  Your insurance company (and others) offers free materials on the web in addition to the services they provide clients directly.  There are a growing number of church security associations.  Many provide free content at their websites.  Some require a subscription to access their information.  Still others sell books and guidelines.  Shop carefully; there are a lot of free resources out there for the asking.  Don’t forget to visit your local libraries where you, or members of your protection committee, can borrow books on the topic of crime prevention.

By caring for your property, by promptly repairing each “broken window,” and scrubbing off each “tag,” you reduce the likelihood that other crimes will occur.  Remember, effective vandalism prevention is also crime prevention.  By refusing to let vandalism and graffiti take hold, you make a statement to your congregation, your neighborhood, and the community at large, that your house of worship, and all others in your community, deserve and demand compassion, caring, and respect.  


Houses of Worship Security Resource Guide, by ASIS Houses of Worship Security Working Group 

Church Safety Solutions, by Zurich Services Corporation hosted by Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co. and Christianity Today International


Adams, J. (2006) Two men are charged in Hindu temple vandalism. Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May, 13, 2006. Retrieved from

Brown, C. (2010) For seven years, monks have had no peace. Star Tribune (Rochester, Minnesota), May 29, 2010.  Retrieved from

FBI (2009) Hate crime statistics 2009. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Retrieved from

Minnesota Office of the Revisor of Statutes (2010) 609.595 Damage to property.  Minnesota Statutes.  Retrieved from

Ross, C. (2009) Murals help deter graffiti vandalism. North County Times, Saturday, January 2, 2010.  Retrieved from

Wilson, J. and Kelling, G. (1982) Broken windows. Atlantic Magazine, May, 1982.  Retrieved from

UPDATE: Yet another community responds to the desecration of their cemetery