Arson is a horrific crime. When motivated by hate, it becomes even more abominable. If in the context of the Charleston active shooter at Emanuel AME Church (Charleston, SC) and then eight black congregations erupting in flame within ten days, it causes great terror and outrage.
It is little wonder many reporters, pastors and others are tweeting and posting speculations about these recent incidents. It seems a pattern. One should indeed be open to the possibility of a racially motivated attack, yet others point out that it seems a hoax when such fires are too quickly attributed to racism. Yet to be fair to both sides, the average person tends to be ignorant of the broader context of arson committed against faith communities. They don’t necessarily have access to the wealth of research, experience and training available to properly interpret such events.
Certainly, things aren’t always what they first seem. Already, three of the ten religious building fires have been (at least initially) attributed to other causes such as a lightning strike. Many don’t realize that church fires are all too common, and that many of these fires prove to be arson events. The National Fire Protection Association has reported from their research:
From 2007 to 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 1,780 structure fires in religious and funeral properties each year. NFPA estimates that these fires resulted in an annual average of two civilian fatalities, 19 civilian injuries, and $111 million in direct property damage. The largest share of fires involved religious properties, with just four percent taking place in funeral parlors. Since 1980, the average number of reported fires in religious and funeral properties has fallen by 54%, from 3,500 per year to 1,660 in 2011.[i]
The Southern Poverty Law Center and others are not totally off base to suspect a more sinister, violent pattern perhaps lies underneath these recent fires. Arson happens, and even one faith community burned down for hate is too much. Still, we need to be accurate in our discussions. We shouldn’t base our reactions on often misleading, summary headlines. Exaggerations tend to distract people from the very real dangers of such arson and fires in general. They tend to cause greater fear (if not panic), suspicion and division. People act on perceptions and emotion rather than any factual basis. Even an honest mistake can appear a lie or manipulation of fact; unintentionally hurting efforts to combat racism and violence in our communities by fermenting fear or suspicion. Yet, lackadaisical attitudes can also help facilitate such crimes and cover-up very real racist threats in our communities.
Past media outcry over what appeared to be a rash of attacks against minority churches caused the formation of the National Church Arson Task Force in 1996. (It has since been disbanded.) The Church Arson Prevention Act passed that same year. This made arson against faith communities a Federal offense and doubled the potential sentence from ten years to twenty years.
Since then, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have been tasked to oversee church fire investigations. Things have improved dramatically, but we still face great risk. Citing NFPA, the Insurance Information Institute (III) reports that incidents of arson of religious buildings dramatically dropped from 1,320 in 1980 to 240 in 2002. However from 2007-2011, they report 1,600 cases of arson targeting houses of worship causing $105 million in property damage.[ii] This means that over that five year period an average 320 houses of worship per year were victims of arson. Studies vary, but one may expect an estimated three to five cases of church arson per week nationally.
Many express dismay that what appears an obvious hate crime to them isn’t regarded as such by law enforcement authorities. Report details can vary depending on methodology and data source(s). Statistics can be hard to come by for those outside law enforcement or the insurance industry. It also appears that since the National Church Arson Task Force disbanded, statistics for “church arson” are included within the larger published hate crime statistics. This clouds the already complicated issue of hate crimes.
By their nature, hate crimes remain difficult to classify or quantify. A criminal offense needs to be confirmed as motivated by hate. If there are no connections established by previous threats, evidence on scene, or suspect admission, it may not be listed as a hate crime. As explained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI):
A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.[iii]
For 2013, the FBI recorded 6,933 confirmed hate crimes. It is probable that more occur. Arsons have a low closure and arrest rate compared to other crimes, because of their destructive nature. Evidence indicating the suspect’s intent might not be available. If motive cannot be determined, the event is not captured as a hate crime. When victims, agencies, or organizations don’t participate in the reporting process, incidents obviously cannot be included. Just as the debate about officer involved shootings (OIS) has revealed, criminal justice reporting needs to improve. Yet of the data captured, approximately thirty-five percent of hate crimes were crimes against property totaling 2,424 incidents. Only thirty-six of these confirmed hate related incidents were determined to be arson.
Still, one can discern that accidental fires and arson occur relatively and regrettably often at houses of worship. Religious buildings too often have flammables poorly stored, faulty electrical work, and other property risks. About a third of religious structure fires are from cooking related accidents. Yet, faith communities tend to be high profile organizations in their neighborhoods, and their buildings are occupied often on a fixed schedule. They might serve at-risk community members. This makes them attractive targets for burglars, vandals and arsonists. Motives for arson go beyond hate and may include: concealing another crime, fireplay, influence of media/copy cats, monetary gain, mental illness, pyromania, and (the most common) vandalism. III reports, “In 2013, 27.9 percent of the people arrested for arson were under the age of 18.” One should not automatically assume that every church fire is arson or a hate crime. The research doesn’t support it.
Racially based arson does occur. One case is too many, but all houses of worship face risk. Media reports indicate that the Quba Islamic Institute (Houston, TX) experienced a confirmed arson in February 2015 when one of its unoccupied buildings was torched. A predominately white ELCA congregation, First Evangelical (Lorain, OH), was a victim of arson following a break-in.
Without suspect admission, known threats, or other firm evidence, one can’t necessarily prove hate as a cause, but arson for any reason remains appalling. Trying to speak and write accurately about the issue won’t minimize the horror to any black or other faith communities being targeted. However, we might reduce their occurrence further by working together. It might just help us get to the bottom of things quicker by limiting gossip and misinformation. Undoubtedly, it will help defeat a primary goal of such terrorist acts – fear and discord in the community. Unity of vision and purpose in the local community best fights such fires.
What your faith community can do:
- Cut back bushes and growth near your buildings. This helps slow the spread of fire, but it also increases visibility for law enforcement and any passersby.
- Keep up general maintenance, landscaping and cleaning on the property. Disheveled surroundings and unsecured premises tend to encourage unwanted activity.
- Remove possible sources for ignition and accelerants.
- Correct problematic landscape designs or features facilitating furtive activity.
- Post no trespassing signs in problem areas.[iv]
- Lighting, fencing and other physical security measures are proven deterrents.
- Secure and lock as many interior parts of the building as you can to inhibit access of unwelcome guests and spread of any fire.
- Don’t hide keys in fake rocks, etc. People know to look for these. Know who has keys and is allowed access. Key control is important.
- Consider electronic surveillance and alarms, preferably connected to an outside monitoring service.
- Speak of security awareness to your congregation. Ask nearby members to keep a watch on the building. Don’t be afraid to report anything suspicious.
- Report domestic threats against employees or members, vandalism, other “petty crimes,” and any signs of suspicious activities or footprints around remote parts of the building.
- Take advantage of free security surveys often offered by local fire departments, law enforcement, insurance carriers, lock smiths and security companies.
- Participate in available community crime prevention programs such as a Business Watch or Worship Watch program.
- The recommended insurance carrier for the ELCA, Church Mutual, has educational products available for clients. Check with your own insurance carrier to learn more.
[i] Campbell, R. (June 2013) US Structure Fires in Religious and Funeral Properties. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association. http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fires-by-property-type/assemblies/religious-and-funeral-properties
[iii] Federal Bureau of Investigation (UD). Hate Crime – Overview. Washington, DC. https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/hate_crimes/overview
[iv] Virginia has a code (18.2-125) prohibiting trespassing on graveyard and church property at night, but not every law enforcement officer is familiar with it or prone to enforce it without permission of the property owners. Signs fit into the general trespassing code (18.2-119). It might be prudent to ban repeat offenders. Consult local law enforcement.
Bonetti, E. (7 Apr 2014). Church Arson: Facts and prevention. Posted on EpiscopalCafe.com. As found at http://www.episcopalcafe.com/church_arson_facts_and_prevention/ on July 1, 2014
Campbell, R. (June 2013). US Structure Fires in Religious and Funeral Properties. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association. [Electronic Version] As downloaded from http://www.nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fires-by-property-type/assemblies/religious-and-funeral-properties on July 1, 2014.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (UD). Hate Crime – Overview. Washington, DC. As found at https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/hate_crimes/overview on July 1, 2015.
Ingraham, C. (1 Jul 2015). The surprising frequency of church arson. Washington, DC: Washington Post. As found at https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/07/01/church-arsons-happen-way-more-often-than-you-think/ on July 2, 2014.
Insurance Information Institute (February 2015). Arson. New York, NY. As found at http://www.iii.org/issue-update/arsons on July 1, 2015.
U.S. Fire Administration (2010). Community Arson Prevention: National Arson Awareness Media Kit. Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). [Electronic Version] As downloaded from https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/arson/aaw10_media_kit.pdf on July 3, 2015.
U.S. Fire Administration (n.d.). Statistical reports on the U.S. fire problem. Emmitsburg, MD: Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). As found at http://www.usfa.fema.gov/data/statistics/reports.html on July 1, 2015.
Virginia’s Legislative Information System (LIS) as found at http://lis.virginia.gov/
© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.