Church Arson Prevention

A rash of racially-motivated church burnings raged across the southern part of the United States in 1996. Communities scrambled to protect their houses of worship. A church watch program can utilize the theories of neighborhood watch and crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) to make churches more difficult to target. Congregation members must cooperate with local authorities, regional crime prevention groups, and area residents to establish an effective church watch group.

The first Church Watch sign went up in Orange County, North Carolina, on July 9, 1996, signaling a new effort by the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety to help reduce or eliminate the opportunity for crime, including arson, involving houses of worship. The initiative employs the basic principles of Neighborhood Watch, but adds Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) strategies to help religious congregations protect property and make buildings less attractive targets for criminal activity.

The department’s Crime Prevention Division has developed a packet of materials to help local law enforcement officers implement the program, including a booklet called “Community Watch & Worship,” a registration form, a church watch security check list, and information on CPTED in a religious setting. To join the program, a church must appoint a crime prevention coordinator, organize a meeting with the congregation at which law enforcement officers present basic crime prevention and CPTED techniques, meet with the community surrounding the church, and apply for the statewide registry. Local crime prevention officers will deliver the signs when groups have met the criteria.

In the first year of its church watch program, the Crime Prevention Division trained more than 1,200 people statewide in Church Watch techniques and accepted more than 100 applications for the program. Thirty-three counties across the state implemented Church Watch programs. Even though Church Watch was designed to counter church arsons, it also reduced church vandalism, helped get the word out about insurance fraud and scams, and provided a new arena for crime prevention.

For more information or to obtain the Church Watch materials, contact

Crime Prevention Division, North Carolina
Department of Crime Control & Public Safety
PO Box 29591, Raleigh, NC 27626-0591

The National Arson Prevention Initiative has established a Clearinghouse for arson prevention resources. The toll-free number, 888-603-3100, gives callers access to free arson prevention publications and information about available grants, training, and arson safety inspections for communities. The National Arson Prevention Initiative is coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.