5 Steps for Religious & Community Center Security

Learn the 5 key steps to community center security that helped JCCs in the U.S. with bomb threat calls that tested their plans.

On Jan. 9th, there were 16 seemingly coordinated bomb threats to Jewish community centers (JCCs) in larger cities in the Eastern United States – from New Jersey to Florida. All of the threats that day turned out to be hoaxes, but they tested the mettle of the people there, the local law enforcement officers that responded and the family members that rushed to the full-scale evacuation scenes.

These events, along with dramatic increases in hate-based crimes across the United States, highlight the need for security preparations and emergency management planning at community centers.

The overall response to the bomb threats was swift and organized throughout the region, staff at the Anti -Defamation League (ADL) told Gov1. They attributed this to institutional security planning, staff training and the JCCs relationships with local law enforcement.

Read about the hate crimes trend and follow these key steps from the ADL and the recent JCC evacuations in Miami to improve security and emergency management planning at community centers.

Trend: The Spike in Hate Crimes Since 2015

Last year, James Medina was arrested for trying to buy a bomb from an undercover FBI agent in the Miami area. He was planning to attack a synagogue in Aventura, Fla., just north of Miami, during Passover services. After surveilling the synagogue with the undercover agents, Medina decided to use remote explosives instead of using firearms in a martyr-style attack, according to the Miami Herald. His upcoming federal trial is set for Feb. 9th.

There may be no shortage of hate in America motivating such behavior. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released 2015 Uniform Crime Reporting statistics in November 2016, the data showed anti-Muslim crime rising by 67 percent, and hate crimes rising 7 percent overall. At the start of 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was tracking 892 active hate groups in the United States.

Whether it’s anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, racially-motivated, anti-gay or LGBT, pro-life or something else, hate groups and lone wolves in the last two years have planned to attack “courthouses, banks, festivals, funerals, schools, mosques, churches, synagogues, clinics, water treatment plants and power grids,” according to SPLC.

Recap: What Happened in Miami

The SPLC, in writing about the extremely hateful year that was 2015, noted that Florida was #3 in the top five states for hate groups.

JCCs in Orlando, Maitland, Jacksonville, Miami and elsewhere received eight bomb threat calls just last week, said Hava Holzhauer, regional director with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). There were similar threats the week prior at JCCs in the Tampa area.

The Alper JCC in Southwest Miami-Dade County was one of many places on the East Coast where police evacuated children, seniors and others and then swept campuses and buildings to search for bombs. The ADL was enthusiastic about the performance of everyone involved in the emergency evacuations, from the children to local law enforcement.

Step #1: Get a Handle on the Basics

Nationwide, the ADL sent out calls to action with direct links to federal bomb threat guidance and related advisories from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, security videos and manuals and a basic security punch list. The list sent out from the ADL regional office in Boston offered the following summary, along with other actions and resources:

  • Ensure that your institution's rules and procedures dealing with who gets into your facility and events are sufficient and are functioning (access control).
  • A facility should have as few entry points as possible (ideally one), so that no one is able to enter your facility without being greeted and observed.
  • Ensure that your staff members, including newly hired personnel, know their role in security and what to do in the event of an emergency.
  • Ensure that safety devices (video cameras, lights, etc.) are in good working condition.
  • Connect with local law enforcement to discuss security. If you have not established personal relationships with key police personnel, set up a meeting to do so. If you are not sure who to reach out to, ADL can help connect you with the appropriate personnel.

“Every institution needs to become aware before threats take place … Every institution has to take the general knowledge and apply it to their institution,” Holzhauer said.

Step #2: Connect Tightly with Local Law Enforcement

In Protecting Your Jewish Institution, the ADL recommends not only connecting with local public safety officers and keeping them informed of public events at community centers, but also bringing in local special weapons and tactics teams (SWAT) to map institutions and their surroundings.

At both the Miami and Miami Beach JCCs that received the bomb threat calls, responding police officers had knowledge of the facilities. They knew where people would be and had some insight for these bomb sweeps.

“Our officers are already familiar with the layout of the building,” said Ernesto Rodriguez, the public information officer for the Miami Beach Police Department.

According to Alvaro Zabaleta, detective and public information officer with the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Alper JCC and the Southwest Miami Dade police department that responded have had a phenomenal relationship from the start. The officers and the K-9 team called in swept the campus -- with upwards of two dozen buildings -- in about four hours, he said.

Step #3: Designate Security Managers, Train Staff and Practice

ADL encourages institutions to run regular safety and security exercises for different threat scenarios. Incidents like widespread, possibly corroborated bomb threat hoax calls are a good reminder.

“You can never have enough training,” said Holzhauer, who is currently working on several requested, upcoming workshops.

Zabaleta also stressed the importance of the institution’s planning and practice. When facilities do not have a plan, there is chaos because people may not know where to go or what to do, he said.

“That’s when panic sets in, and that is the last thing you need,” he said, noting that law enforcement in Miami-Dade was able to respond so efficiently on Jan. 9th because the Alper JCC had an evacuation plan and followed it, evacuating 450 children and 70 staff.

“They were able to do this in a fluid manner,” Zabaleta said.

Designating a security manager, along with an emergency/incident manager and a backup, is a good first planning step. The security manager creates or oversees security planning, regularly assesses risks and revisits security plans with incident managers and staff.

Responding to bomb threats is one security plan type recommended in ADL’s manuals.  Jewish federations in major urban areas have hired more than 20 security coordinators — many are former federal law enforcement officials  — in the last two years, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

Brenda Moxley, director of community security for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and about 120 of its institutions, was hired last year after serving as assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s criminal branch in Miami.

“Every day, it’s important to be vigilant,” she told JTA. “It’s not about being paranoid; it’s just about being prepared.”

Once there are plans, start practicing.

According to ADL, “...a stale plan loses value. It is of utmost importance to role-play, drill and reevaluate your plan at several stages. Role-playing involves the participation of all decision-making personnel who would be involved during an explosive threat scenario, talking through situations and variations on those situations to determine if the organization’s [plan] is both comprehensive and complete.”

Step #4: Develop Online Communications Policies

The ADL recommends establishing website security and online communications security policies. Policies should address issues “such as whether to post facility and event addresses, event calendars, contact information for individuals and photographs.”

Step #5: Consider Monitored Surveillance Practices

If your institution is being targeted, suffered vandalism or fights, monitored surveillance increases the ability to avert threats.

Closed-circuit TV (CCTV) can permit surveillance by one trained security officer at a master console. However, checking, reviewing and managing stored videos make the system more effective.

While there is a cost component associated with monitored surveillance, more institutions are doing it, Holzhauer said.

Zabaleta said he also encourages institutions to use technology. Cameras are a tool for investigation and surveillance, as well as a deterrent.

Most CCTV systems now include video storage.

“It’s not as expensive as it used to be,” he added.

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