This post was contributed by Brian Statz, an attorney with 15 years’ experience as a museum professional.  He now practices law with the Indianapolis law firm of Lewis Kappes, an AMM member, providing general counsel and other services to museums and nonprofits.

When mass shootings occur, as they too often do, museums ask themselves the same questions: “Could it happen here?” and “What can be done to prevent it?”  While no security plan can provide 100% safety, there are proven measures that can help mitigate the risk of an active shooter or other security incident threatening your organization.  

Museum professionals likely have been asked by their board, upper management, the media or the public whether they can guarantee an active shooter event will never happen at their facility.  The answer, unfortunately, is “no.”  For many years, I was responsible for the security operations at a large museum, and a law enforcement professional explained the reality to me in stark terms:  if you put an armed security officer in the middle of your facility, an active shooter will start shooting at your entrance; if you put metal detectors at your front door, an active shooter will start shooting before he gets to the metal detectors; and if you lock your doors, an active shooter will shoot through the doors or windows to gain access, or target those who are walking to and from your facility.  Of course that does not mean you should not take any security measures, but you have to be realistic about the threats you are facing.

Most museums do not have a large security presence, either for economic reasons or to avoid giving the impression that their museum is not friendly and welcoming.  Paradoxically, having a highly visible security presence can create the impression that your facility is not safe, the thought being that if it were safe then you would not need security.  For that reason, when implementing security measures, each museum needs to consider its own specific circumstances, the expectations of its visitors and the anticipated reactions of its community.

There are practical steps you can take to reassure your visitors, staff, and management, that your museum is a safe place to visit and enjoy (the following is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered legal advice):

1. Develop a written security plan.   Make sure it covers the basic questions of what you want your staff to do in case of emergencies, including an active shooter event, an evacuation or lockdown, a missing child, a suspicious package, etc.  The plan should be as short as you can make it while still covering the essentials – one or two pages per emergency is ideal – that way, the plan will be easy for staff to learn, remember, and reference as needed.  Address basic items like how you will communicate with staff and visitors in an emergency, who is responsible for contacting law enforcement, where you want staff and visitors to go (or to stay), and how you will provide assistance to persons who need it.  Include a map of your facility in the plan, showing all emergency exits and exit routes, and identify locations where your staff and visitors should go if you have to evacuate your facilities.   Some companies have their security plan on an app so it can be accessed from a mobile device during an emergency.

2. Review your security plan with law enforcement.   Once you have a plan prepared, contact your local law enforcement agencies and ask them to review and comment on the plan.   They may have helpful suggestions for changes and additions, and they can speak with you about what their response would be if emergencies occur at your museum.  

3. Practice your plan!   Schedule regular drills with your staff to make sure they know what to do in a particular emergency.  It may take several drills before staff can execute your plan efficiently.  After each drill, see what questions people have and review your overall performance, identifying issues to improve upon during the next drill.

4. Engage your visitors.   If possible, have staff greet your visitors as they arrive and engage them while they are in your facility.  In addition to showing courtesy, this helps demonstrate that you are paying attention and keeping an eye on activities in your museum.   If you notice a visitor acting in an unusual manner, having a brief, polite conversation with him or her may help you determine whether that person could be a security risk.

5. Establish your policy about armed security, metal detectors and bag checks.   You may hear from board members or those in the public who believe you should have armed security at your facility, along with metal detectors and bag checks.  Each museum operates in different circumstances, and there is no one right answer that applies to everyone.  In addition to the security considerations, there are financial and practical considerations that apply.  Work with your board and management to determine what is appropriate for your facility, and be prepared to defend your choices to the public and the media.

6. Determine and post your weapons policy for visitors.  Many museums have a “no weapons” policy for visitors, while others make exceptions, such as for off-duty law enforcement members.  Your state and municipality may have laws specifying what you are allowed to do regarding weapons, and that answer may be different for public and private facilities.  Consider posting your weapons policy at your entrance, and make sure your staff know what to do if they see a visitor carrying a weapon.  

7. Post clear safety and security rules at your entrance and on your website.  No, the presence of a rule will not deter someone intent on violence, but having clear rules will make it easier for your floor staff to deal with a disruptive person by being able to point to the rules that were violated.  Some museums enforce a zero tolerance policy for rule breaking – if a visitor breaks a posted rule, the visitor is escorted out of the building – which have come into focus over the past year with mask requirements.  Having clear rules also may help if you need to call law enforcement to help remove a disruptive person.

8. Partner with your neighbors. Consider informing representatives of your neighborhood – businesses and individuals – of any significant changes in security measures you are considering, especially if those changes will be visible to the public, and seek their input when possible to promote good community relations and cooperation.  Communicate with neighbors regarding security issues you are having – your neighbors may be having some of the same issues, and you can share ideas about how to address them.   For example, one museum experiencing a rash of vehicle break-ins in its parking lots learned that surrounding businesses had the same problem, so they shared information with one another about suspicious vehicles in the area and monitored each other’s parking lots with security cameras.  Also, if you have to evacuate your facility in an emergency, your neighbors can provide a place for you to gather safely, reunite visitors with their families, and provide work space so your management can communicate with families, the media, the public, and others.