Detroit cop unions challenge NFL handgun ban

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Detroit police union officials are expressing their opposition to an NFL policy that prohibits off-duty cops from bringing firearms into stadiums, saying the rule puts lives in danger.

Detroit police union officials have drafted a letter to the NFL protesting its new policy that prohibits off-duty officers from carrying firearms in NFL stadiums.

“This policy is ill-advised and should be rescinded,” said a draft of a letter, penned by leaders of the city’s three police unions: The Detroit Police Officers Association, Lieutenants and Sergeants Association and the Command Officers Association.

“Law enforcement officers often carry a weapon while off duty not only for their own personal protection but to provide a critical response when circumstances call for immediate police action,” said the letter, which had not been sent to the league yet Friday evening as the unions finalize it.

“Current events, not least the unconscionable acts of terrorism we have recently experienced, only add to the desirability of having readily available armed law enforcement officers even if they are not officially ‘on duty.’ ”

Two animal rights protesters who ran onto the field at Ford Field toward the end of Thursday’s nationally televised Detroit Lions game further hammered home the possibility of violence at a game, DPOA president Mark Diaz said.

“God forbid, what if those had been terrorists? Yes, there are officers at the games, but the more people you have, the better,” he said. “To say we don’t want people who are trained to protect lives to have their firearms is unfathomable.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email Friday that security is stronger when stadium officials know which officers are working.

“Off-duty officers attend games as spectators and are unknown to working law enforcement officers and security personnel,” McCarthy said. “They may not have the same training and do not participate in the weekly preparation meetings. They are not included in the on-site chain of command.

“The well-intentioned display or use of gun(s) could have serious unintended and potentially tragic consequences,” he said.

The NFL enacted the firearms ban in October 2013.

Detroit Police Officers Association President Mark Diaz

Gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people across Paris in the Nov. 13 attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, including one killed and several others injured by three suicide bombers outside the Stade de France during a soccer match between France and Germany.

There are several theories why the terrorists’ plan at the stadium went awry and didn’t kill more people — but law enforcement and security experts warn a similar attack in a United States stadium could be deadly, and say the NFL should revamp its firearm ban for off-duty cops.

“It’s a bad policy, given what’s going on in the world today,” said Detroit Police Chief James Craig, a gun rights advocate. “The difference between surviving and not surviving could rest with an off-duty officer who is able to defend against some crazed terrorist who wants to take us out.” Craig did not add his signature to the letter.

Craig said France’s strict gun prohibition policy likely cost lives during the recent terrorist attacks. “Terrorists look for soft targets, and they’re well aware of France’s policy,” he said. “What if there were some armed citizens or off-duty officers present during those attacks? The outcome might have been a lot different.”

When the NFL unveiled the policy, it prompted immediate criticism from police, who said the rule violated the federal “Law Enforcement Officer’s Safety Act,” of 2004 which “authorizes off-duty and retired law enforcement officers to carry a concealed firearm in any jurisdiction in the country, with limitations.”

The limitations include private property and although many stadiums are publicly built, a challenge to the rule by Minnesota police was upheld last year by the state’s appellate court.

Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans home games are exempt from the ban, since Texas law forces all law enforcement officers to carry firearms at all times.

Detroit had a similar rule compelling off-duty cops to carry their guns in the 1970s and 1980s, but it was rescinded.

In Detroit, the NFL policy had immediate ramifications, as some off-duty officers were turned away at Ford Field’s gates in the past and told to return their guns to their cars. Some then reported their cars were broken into and the guns stolen, police officials said.

Other Metro Detroit sports venues have mixed policies about off-duty cops bringing guns into games. At Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena, where the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings play, respectively, off-duty officers must check in with a gate attendant, who will record the cop’s seat number.

However, off-duty officers are not allowed to bring their firearms into The Palace of Auburn Hills, home of the Detroit Pistons, team spokesman Kevin Grigg said. “We have locations for off-duty officers to check (their) firearms in gun lockers,” he said.

Police across the country have criticized the NFL policy. The head of the New York Police Department’s Benevolent Sergeant’s Association has created an online petition calling for the league to revamp the policy. As of Friday, the petition had more than 2,500 signatures.

Former New York police officer and security expert Beau Dietl disagrees with the policy.

“The NFL needs to let off-duty and retired cops bring their weapons into their stadiums,” Dietl said Friday. “These league officials need to realize there’s a real threat that could occur at any time in any stadium.”

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