Sikh temple shooting raises question of security at faith-based organizations
Update (Wed., Aug. 8, 2012): It seems the white supremacist who killed six people at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin actually shot himself in the head after his engagement with local law enforcement officers, according to new information released by the FBI. The story until now was that a police officer shot and killed the gunman, but the FBI now says the officer only wounded him and that he took his own life, according to the Los Angeles Times. The FBI also says no motive is yet known.
OAK CREEK, Wis.—The man who on Sunday morning walked into a Sikh temple in this Milwaukee suburb and opened fire, killing six people before police arrived and shot him dead, was a U.S. Army veteran and former leader of a white supremacist music band.
Police have identified the shooter as Wade Michael Page, a veteran who was discharged from the Army in 1998, but not under honorable conditions, according to the Los Angeles Times. Page was also allegedly a white supremacist who led a skinhead band called End Apathy, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In addition to the six people shot and killed during the incident, three others were wounded, including a veteran police officer who remains in critical condition at a local hospital.
A motive is still unknown, but law enforcement officials are treating it as a domestic terrorist event. Though not all details are known, it sounds like a hate crime to Jeffrey Hawkins, an expert on church security. "If the person who walked in was wearing a turban and was identified as a member of this particular church, then you'd say it's possibly some sort of internal problem or domestic problem that spilled over," Hawkins told Security Director News. "But the fact it was a caucausian male not dressed as the people inside the church speaks to it being a biased shooting."
Since followers of the Sikh religion wear turbans, they're often thought to be Muslims, which has led the Sikh community to be the target of harassment, said Hawkins, who is currently manager of security management education outreach for American Military University. With over 25 million followers worldwide, Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, with over 500,000 followers in the United States, according to the Sikh Coalition, a New York-based civil rights group. The Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 biased attacks against Sikhs since 9/11, according to Time.
As last month's shooting at the Aurora cinema created debate about the need for security at movie theaters, this temple shooting will generate debate within religious communities about the need for security measures at their houses of worship, Hawkins said.
Houses of worship are inherently soft targets because they open their doors to the public and are widely considered to be safe places, Hawkins said.
There have been a number of church shootings in the Christian community over the past several years, according to Hawkins, and the response is always the same: "It's that-can't-happen-here mentality," he said.
The comments from the Sikh community echo those sentiments. "'We always thought this was the safest place to be.' 'We always thought a place to come worship our god, to pray, where it's all about peace and love, that this would be the safest place,'" Hawkins said. "That just doesn't follow logic. We've seen so many shootings in Christian churches alone, why would you think any church would be different?"
Despite the shootings, Hawkins, the author of An Introduction to Security and Emergency Planning for Faith-Based Organizations, which is currently out of print, still believes faith-based organizations don't take security seriously enough. According to a 2008 survey by a Christian news service, roughly 77 percent of the nearly 3,000 respondents said their churches didn't have any security measures in place. "If all the other faiths and other religions follow the same pattern of believing that churches don't need security, then that's a lot of houses of worship that are soft targets and very vulnerable to things like this," Hawkins said. "It's just not a surprise anymore."
Last year, Hawkins shut down an organization he founded in 2008 called the Christian Security Network because of lack of support from religious leaders. He had founded the group to bring attention to the need for Christian organizations to take security more seriously. At the time, Hawkins told SDN: "Church leaders just do not believe that there is a problem. … After every incident you hear the same thing: 'I never thought this would happen to a church.' … Unfortunately, the church is not that sacred place that it once used to be … times have changed. Churches still think they can leave their doors open and unlocked and are surprised when they become victims."
An event like this inevitably sends ripples of fear throughout the affected community, and Hawkins said it should serve as a wake-up call. "The takeaway should be that, as the realism sets in, this can happen anywhere and you really have to have procedures and training in place for everybody," Hawkins said.
Resources are scant when it comes to developing security plans and providing security training for faith-based organizations, but ASIS International's Cultural Properties Council does offer the following guide: Best Practices for Securing Houses of Worship (this is a PDF).