By David Chanen
The National Football League has been slapped with a lawsuit by two Minnesota law enforcement organizations challenging its authority to prohibit off-duty officers from bringing guns into stadiums.
Since 2003, state law has allowed licensed peace officers to carry weapons in private establishments, even when signs banning guns are posted. But in September, the NFL alerted team owners that it was instituting a new policy forbidding anyone other than on-duty officers and private security personnel working its games to carry weapons in stadiums.
Not only does that policy violate state law, it's unenforceable, argues a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Hennepin County District Court. The suit picked up steam after an off-duty Minneapolis police officer attending the Minnesota Vikings' final game in December was told to take his gun and lock it in his car.
"This is the most unsafe thing you could do," said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, one of the plaintiffs. "Officers are trained and encouraged to be able to respond 24 hours a day. This is terrible public policy."
The suit appears to be the first legal challenge to the NFL's gun policy, said Lt. John Delmonico, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the other plaintiff.
When officers heard about the new NFL policy, Delmonico sought a legal opinion from the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which owns the Metrodome.
Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Sports Authority, told him the authority also believes that the NFL's handgun policy is inconsistent with state law and generally unenforceable, despite the December incident. She said the Sports Authority also believes it isn't contractually obligated to comply with the policy.
In letters sent several months ago to Flaherty and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, NFL chief security officer Jeffrey Miller wrote that the league believes that public safety inside stadiums is best served by on-duty officers assigned to the game.
The likelihood of law enforcement actually using deadly force inside a stadium is extremely remote, he wrote.
On average, more than 500 civilian security personnel and 150 on-duty local, state and federal law enforcement officers are assigned to every NFL game, Miller said.
Off-duty officers haven't received special training on working in a stadium and are generally unknown to the officers assigned to the game, he said.
"Most states recognize that an NFL game ticket constitutes a license that reserves to the licenser, in this case the Minnesota Vikings, discretion to deny admission to any ticket-holders," Miller wrote. "That license extends to the denial of admission to anyone that violates the NFL's policy prohibiting firearms and other weapons inside NFL stadiums or facilities."
Miller said he is willing to discuss the policy further with police leaders.
Brian McCarthy, the NFL's vice president of communications, said Tuesday that the NFL would decline to comment on the lawsuit beyond Miller's letters. McCarthy said he isn't aware of any other law agencies challenging or raising concerns about the gun policy, and no club or individual has been disciplined for violating it.
The Vikings were notified of the lawsuit but deferred comments to the NFL.
The regents of the University of Minnesota, also named as a defendant, declined to comment. The Vikings will be playing for the next two seasons at TCF Bank Stadium at the U, which also forbids off-duty officers from carrying weapons.
Officers seek 'rights'
Before the NFL policy took effect, the Vikings had never reported an incident or concern about off-duty officers having concealed weapons in the stadium, according to the suit.
"Whether the NFL has the authority to ban handguns is the crux of the suit," Delmonico said. "If it's the NFL today, who will be next? We need to stand up for our rights now."
Stanek agrees. "NFL facilities will not be safer by removing the capability of sworn, certified and trained off-duty officers to react to any and all situations," he said. "Instead, it diminishes the safety of the venue and the fans, which is why I am fully supportive of my colleagues and this lawsuit."
Flaherty said it's up to an individual officer to decide whether to carry a weapon while off duty, but many do so because they want to be able to respond to any police matter that might arise. Self-protection is another reason.
"Citizens could care less if the officer is on or off duty when a response is needed," he said. "I'm confident [that] when a judge looks at the law closely and the intent the Legislature had in mind, he or she will rule on our behalf."
Similar issues have been debated by law enforcement in Cleveland and Baltimore, and it has been a topic in trade publications, Flaherty said.
"This has nothing to do with arming citizens," he said. "It's only about disarming police officers."
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