By David Hanners
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota's largest police group and police union are suing the NFL and the Vikings, claiming the league's new ban on off-duty cops carrying their guns to games is illegal.
The Minnesota law that allows businesses to bar weapons specifically exempts "active licensed" peace officers, and state law trumps NFL rules, the lawsuit says.
But the National Football League disagrees, saying the law doesn't apply to it. Although an NFL spokesman declined to comment on the suit, when police officials complained about the policy last fall, the league's security chief said a ticket to a game is a license that teams can revoke at will — and being an armed off-duty cop is reason enough.
The NFL said that between on-duty officers assigned to games and rent-a-cops, there are enough guns inside NFL stadiums, and the league worries about "blue-on-blue" shootings.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Hennepin County District Court by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. The latter is the bargaining unit that has 900 members.
Defendants are the NFL, the Vikings and the regents of the University of Minnesota. The Vikings will play the next two seasons at the U's TCF Bank Stadium while their new arena is built on the site of the Metrodome.
Vikings officials did not immediately return a call for comment. Chuck Tombarge, director of public relations for the U, said the school's general counsel had not yet seen the suit and therefore could not address it.
Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the statewide peace officers association, said the group sued because "the Vikings cannot be allowed to, in essence, thumb their nose at Minnesota law."
"The NFL or a private entity has no authority to supersede state law," said Flaherty, whose group represents 8,500 peace officers.
At issue is a subdivision of Minnesota's statute governing where people can carry guns if they have a permit. It allows business owners to ban guns in their premises if they post signs or orally tell people guns are prohibited.
But a portion of the law says it doesn't apply to "an active licensed peace officer" or a security guard "acting in the course and scope of employment."
The NFL adopted its policy last fall and sent a letter to the teams Sept. 11. The policy said guns were "strictly prohibited" within
NFL facilities; the only exceptions were law enforcement personnel assigned to games and private security contractors who were licensed to carry a gun.
People or teams who violate the policy can be fined, suspended or fired, the policy said.
In October, after learning of the new policy, Flaherty wrote to Jeffrey Miller, an NFL vice president and its chief of security. Flaherty noted that some departments "require off-duty officers be able to enforce the law and to react to crimes committed in their presence," and that the "safety of officers and the public requires that the officer be armed," the suit says.
Miller wrote back Oct. 29. He said that while he had "the highest level of respect for people in law enforcement," the NFL decided football stadiums weren't safe when off-duty officers had guns.
"(T)he NFL believes the safest environment for all fans is achieved by limiting the number of firearms and weapons inside stadiums to those required by officers that perform specifically assigned law enforcement working functions and game day duties," Miller wrote.
He said on-duty officers at the games "are specially trained and required to participate in weekly meetings pertaining to pre-game day and game day security and law enforcement planning, strategy, and emergency response procedures and protocols."
Off-duty officers, he wrote, "attend games as spectators. They are unknown to working law enforcement officers. They may not have the same training and do not participate in the weekly preparation meetings."
Miller told Flaherty that when off-duty police bring guns into games, they increase the potential for "blue-on-blue" confrontations with working law enforcement officers.
Miller also said off-duty officers might be boozing it up while watching the game.
In his letter to Flaherty, Miller said he is aware of Minnesota's law involving concealed weapons but maintained it doesn't apply to the NFL. The reason: You can only get into a game with a ticket, and the ticket "constitutes a license that reserves to the licensor, in this case the Minnesota Vikings, discretion to deny admission to any ticketholder (except on grounds that would violate anti-discrimination or similar statutes)."
In an interview, Flaherty said he didn't know of any problems caused by off-duty officers who carried weapons into the Metrodome over the 31 years the Vikings played there.
"I am not aware of any incident there has ever been around or in the Metrodome involving any kind of problem with an officer — on or off duty — and a firearm," he said.
Copyright 2014 the Pioneer Press
McClatchy-Tribune News Service