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Jewish Journal

Congress Weighs Nonprofit Security

by Idan Ivri

June 3, 2004 | 8:00 pm

These days, U.S. airports, federal buildings and transportation hubs are protected by surveillance and armed guards. But what about everything else? What about the cash-strapped nonprofits like temples, schools and community centers whose ethnicity or religious affiliation might make them a potential target?

Some federal legislators have expressed concern that these so-called "soft targets" are going to need extra protection.

The High Risk Nonprofit Security Enhancement Act of 2004 currently before Congress would allocate $100 million in grants and up to $250 million in government-guaranteed loans for security improvements to nonprofit organizations in 2005, with similar amounts in 2006 and 2007, along with $50 million in grants to law enforcement.

The $350 million in assistance to nonprofits would pay for security firms to install better infrastructure, such as concrete barriers, metal detectors and video cameras, and to provide expert training for the nonprofits' staff on operating the equipment.

"Any time [the nation goes] to Orange Alert, we hear estimates that in large urban areas like Los Angeles it can cost law enforcement up to a million dollars [per] day to comply with the additional security requirements," said Julia Massimino, spokeswoman for Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood), one of the local co-sponsors of the House bill. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) is also a co-sponsor.

With law enforcement unable to simultaneously patrol all possible threat sites, the hope is that nonprofits would be able to better defend themselves by using the funds for technological improvements.

The pool of nonprofits that would be eligible for the funds is anticipated to be quite large. It would ultimately be determined by the Homeland Security secretary.

The bill pointedly does not provide funds for nonprofits to purchase any improvement that "would ... [be] reasonably necessary due to nonterrorist threats." However, making that distinction could prove complicated in some cases.

Threats or prior violence directed against an organization by terrorists would be a factor in a decision on eligibility, as would having high "symbolic value" as a target or other information that the secretary would choose to accept.

"It is subjective," said Robyn Judelson, United Jewish Communities public affairs director, one of the most ardent supporters of the bill. "It will be up to the secretary of Homeland Security to determine how far to draw the net. As times change, what may be a high risk today may not be the case in a few months or [vice versa]. We wanted the funds to be there for the secretary to make that decision."

"Nonprofits protect our health [and the] social, religious and educational services provided to Americans, and we have to do what we can to protect them in a different way than is set up in for-profit [organizations] or airplanes," Judelson said of the special needs facing nonprofits.

Because of the U.S. economic problems of the past few years, grants and donations for nonprofits have been steadily drying up, making extra expenditures on security difficult.

David Rosenberg, a local security consultant with The Centurion Group, a subsidiary of Centurion Security Inc., noted that over half of his clients are nonprofit organizations conceivably at risk from international terrorism.

"Anything that's happening globally affects us on a local level," Rosenberg explained. "There was the firebombing of a Jewish day school in Montreal recently, [and] that immediately affected our local clients, and we will step up our security."

He noted, however, that the biggest spike in demand for security services among Los Angeles-area nonprofits came after the North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting in August 1999, rather than after Sept. 11.

"You have to be prepared for anything from an earthquake to a terrorist attack, because there's no way of knowing," Rosenberg said. "I personally am more concerned about domestic terrorism than international terrorism."

While home-grown violence may be far more common than international attacks, the bill before Congress is not designed to combat it. The security enhancements the bill would provide, however, may nevertheless do so as an unintended consequence.

Perhaps a more fundamental gap in the legislation is a lack of money specifically earmarked for salaries of hired guards who are not existing employees of a nonprofit organization.

"I'm a big advocate of using video cameras, but who's watching the screen? Everybody who works in a synagogue, for example, is responsible for security, but you [still] want at least one specialist at the location who can respond to whatever emergency arises," Rosenberg said of the limitations of training a nonprofit's existing staff.

"[For example,] who's going to operate the metal detectors? And if you find a weapon on somebody, who's going to ensure that that person doesn't get inside the structure? I can't imagine somebody who's a security professional saying all you need is environmental changes -- that's a wild thought," Rosenberg said.

There is wide agreement, however, that nonprofits do need more protection than they currently have, and infrastructure enhancements are one step in that direction.

The House bill making its way through the Judiciary Committee has 21 co-sponsors. The identical Senate version has eight co-sponsors in the Governmental Affairs Committee. Little overt opposition to the bill has materialized.

"Everybody's having a difficult time financially, and that just trickles down to nonprofits," Rosenberg said. "Donations are down, but many synagogues have had to add additional security."

"We're at a point now where it could be dangerous to practice your religion," he said. "It may be dangerous to give your children a Jewish education. So in order to exercise those freedoms, we're going to have to put precautions in place."

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