Originally created 03/24/01

Deputies hope churches see the light when it comes to security



David Bass wants churches to lighten up.

The best deterrent to crime is good lighting, but churches often don't think they need it, said Mr. Bass, administrative officer at the Richmond County Marshal's Department.

Improved lighting was one of the primary recommendations the department made after a safety and security assessment at St. Mark United Methodist Church on Washington Road four months ago, said the Rev. Robert Gillespie. "The man did tell us, `You are on the edge of what could be some real problems if you don't protect yourselves."'

An unlocked window or a parking lot full of cars is an open invitation to the kind of visitors not even churches want - thieves and vandals looking for easy prey.

Richmond County may have fewer problems than other places in the country, according to Mr. Bass, but ministers and trustees have been robbed leaving buildings, lawn equipment left on the grounds has been stolen, and youths have vandalized churches "because they could use one finger to lift (a window) up and just go in," said Mr. Bass, who hopes the more than 450 churches in Richmond County will take advantage of the free survey.

The marshal's department is the enforcement arm of the civil and magistrate court. Marshal's deputies serve subpoenas, enforce civil lawsuits and provide security for the Municipal Building on Greene Street. The department also offers background checks on individuals who handle money or supervise children at places of worship.

Since the department began the security surveys, an Augusta-area company has volunteered to give alarm systems to any place of worship and charge only a monitoring fee, said M. Steve Smith, Richmond County marshal. "We don't endorse any alarm company. But we definitely want to give them the opportunity to say `yes' or `no."'

People take their faith community environment for granted, just as they do their homes. They don't always recognize dangers, Mr. Bass said. "We want to be that extra set of eyes to see if we can find things that lead to security or safety issues."

Mr. Bass and the marshal's deputies look for places where an intruder could gain entry. It takes them about 60 to 90 minutes to walk through a campus. They return at night to do a lighting check and will meet with administrators to discuss recommendations.

Sometimes there is too much security. Emergency egress may be hampered by one too many deadbolt locks, for example.

Surveys alert faith communities to good safety habits, such as asking neighbors to call 911 if they see anything suspicious. Doors, light bulbs and smoke detector batteries should be checked on a regular schedule, and congregations should keep track of keys.

Keys shouldn't be copied without authorization, according to the marshal's department, but "only God knows" how many are out at St. Mark, the Rev. Gillespie said. "You loan it out, they can make copies of it."

The department recommends that places of worship change locks if there is an abundance of keys, but for some that is an expense beyond their means.

Mr. Bass said the department's recommendations are just that - recommendations - and they generally involve no cost or little cost. "We don't want it so costly that they can't do it," he said.

The survey report on Everfaithful Missionary Baptist Church "was absolutely - major blessings," said Dr. Rosa Williams, pastor. The Sand Bar Ferry Road congregation used the report to upgrade its security. "We couldn't have done it if they hadn't brought it to our attention," she said.

Everfaithful now has a building and grounds committee, a security committee and an in-house deputy. "We are blessed to have (the marshal's department) in this neighborhood," she said.

Mr. Bass' advice to Everfaithful, St. Mark and the dozen or so other places of worship surveyed till now was: avoid invitations to trouble.

He recalled walking into a brand new church building that had $100,000 worth of sound equipment and musical instruments. He waited more than 30 minutes before someone came, he said. "After 30 minutes, I could have cleaned the whole place out."

For more information, call 821-2517.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.