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St. Peters • St. Peters police are starting a sort of neighborhood watch program to help houses of worship deal with crime.

Officer Melissa Doss plans a session July 16 to educate religious leaders on security procedures that could help them prevent theft, violence, embezzlement and other crimes. She said churches and other religious centers often are considered soft targets for criminals.

"Their nature is to be open and inviting to anybody who walks through their doors," Doss said.

Doss said simple steps such as greeting everyone who enters a building and keeping rear or side entrances locked can make it harder for thieves who might want to steal musical instruments, computers or cash. Houses of worship should try to make the risks outweigh the rewards for a potential crime, she said.

Doss said she also will talk to leaders about background checks for people who work with children and accounting methods that can catch fraud or embezzlement.

She also hopes to help religious leaders share information with each other about crimes they have encountered in their congregations.

Several area police departments have similar programs in place. O'Fallon, Mo., Officer Phil Hardin said his department started Church Watch in August 2008 with a kickoff meeting attended by representatives of 14 congregations. Nearly 20 participate now, he said.

Hardin said partnerships between police and churches not only can prevent crime but also can make it easier to help people who find themselves in desperate need late at night or on weekends when other service agencies may be closed.

The Creve Coeur Police Department started working with houses of worship many years ago, said Officer Jonathan McIntosh. He said the partnerships also can help places like churches prepare for emergencies.

"During disasters, churches become centers not just of faith but centers of the community," he said.

Officer Rick Eckhard said St. Louis County police invite religious organizations to join their Business Watch program, and members can receive training during citizen police academies, the next of which begins Aug. 3.

Erica Van Ross, spokeswoman for the St. Louis Police Department, said Sgt. Catherine Dennis provides training for houses of worship through the Community Outreach Unit.

Roger Richards, director of the Southwestern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission, said his organization offered security programs after a church shooting in Marvyille in 2009. Terry Joe Sedlacek is charged with fatally shooting the Rev. Fred Winters during a service at First Baptist Church of Maryville. He also is accused of stabbing two other church members who rushed to Winters' aid.

Doss said a violent incident in March pushed her to move forward with plans to help houses of worship. Hallucinations from fake marijuana allegedly drove a man to attack two people at First Baptist Church in St. Peters on March 29.

Violent episodes might be relatively rare in religious buildings, Doss said, but thefts aren't as uncommon.

"Criminals don't care," she said. "They look for the easiest marks."