For years, the Buffalo Bills have stressed the need to make Ralph Wilson Stadium more family- and kid-friendly, especially after widespread complaints from fans giving up their season tickets because of rowdiness in the stands.
Now, as part of a proposed agreement being added to the new stadium lease, the Bills and Erie County have agreed to more than double the county’s police presence inside and outside the stadium.
The Bills want 128 more Erie County sheriff’s deputies or officers from other agencies to patrol Ralph Wilson Stadium on game days, with the team picking up the cost.
Also Monday, NFL owners voted to approve the new lease agreement among the Bills, New York State and Erie County.
The Bills, the state and the county reached a memorandum of understanding on a 10-year lease extension in December that will provide for $130 million in renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium. The owners are convening at the NFL’s annual meeting in Phoenix.
“On behalf of Ralph Wilson and the entire Bills organization, we are pleased to announce that NFL ownership today approved the financial terms and conditions of our new lease for, and the renovation of, Ralph Wilson Stadium,” said Russ Brandon, Bills president and chief executive officer, in a statement. “This is another important step in the process toward finalizing the related definitive agreements and remaining on schedule to begin the improvements this year. We anticipate the final approval by the Erie County Legislature and the New York State Legislature in the next couple weeks.”
The goal of the extra deputies is to beef up security inside and around the stadium, with uniformed officers who would supplement private security guards employed by the team and sheriff’s deputies already providing traffic patrols, Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe said.
“We’ve got to get the stadium back to a family environment,” Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman told county legislators last week. “And we’re up to the challenge.”
Erie County legislators are planning a public meeting today to discuss details of the lease agreement, including the beefed-up security detail.
The extra sheriff’s deputies at the stadium would more than double the number of deputies working during a typical game. The county provides between 85 and 90 deputies for traffic patrols, arrests and other tasks and will continue to provide them, Wipperman said.
There’s no question about the need for a larger police presence.
For years, Ralph Wilson Stadium has carved out a reputation for having a passionate fan base and being a top-flight tailgating venue. Unfortunately, it’s also been known as one of the rowdiest stadiums in the league.
And the team’s attempts to make it a more fan-friendly atmosphere were hurt last season with the deaths of two fans who had attended the Miami game Nov. 15. One was struck by a taxi and died 2½ months later, while the other’s body was found in a nearby creek the next morning.
In recent years, the Bills have implemented several changes to try to improve the game-day behavior. Those include an easier way for fans to report abuses in the stands, through telephone and texting numbers; creating a more visible police presence; offering free cab rides to some ejected fans and encouraging the use of designated drivers; opening stadium lots an hour later, to reduce pregame drinking; instituting the “Make Mom Proud” campaign; and blocking ejected fans from returning or buying tickets until they complete a four-hour online course.
The Bills’ latest move gets high marks from a native Buffalonian – and national stadium expert – who’s been a previous critic of the stadium’s rowdiness.
Hans Steiniger, a 1993 Lancaster High School graduate who’s been on a mission to visit all 31 NFL stadiums (www.questfor31.com), once called Bills fans “possibly the worst-behaved fans” in the league. Since then, he thinks they’ve moved to somewhere in the middle of the pack, thanks to an increased security presence inside the stadium the last few years.
“I think it’s a great move,” he said Monday of the new lease provision. “My criticism of the security force years ago, it seemed like retired folks and college kids. I think with an added real police presence – people who know how to handle themselves – you’ll have fewer incidents in the stadium.”
Some observers say that beefing up the security detail, with professional officers who know how to defuse tense situations and enforce the stadium rules, may be the most effective way to reduce rowdiness.
The Bills sought the additional deputies during negotiations over renewing the team’s lease agreement for the county-owned stadium.
“We are working collectively with the county to ensure the safety and fan experience for all of our guests by increasing the number of uniformed law enforcement officers at the stadium on game days,” said Russ Brandon, Bills president and CEO. “Our Fan Behavior Policy remains a crucial element of our game-day operation, and we feel that this addition is an important step forward in implementing the policy.”
Chief of Special Services Scott R. Patronik said the Sheriff’s Office has had several meetings with Bills security staff to identify critical areas where they have had concerns or seen incidents in the past. In addition to posts inside the stadium, there will be deputies stationed outside the gates where crowds form waiting to enter.
“We took a real close look with the Bills security at where they feel potential issues are,” Patronik said, “where we could get our biggest bang for the buck, actually having uniformed law enforcement in those particular positions.”
Tobe said the Bills have agreed to reimburse the county for the cost of providing the additional deputies on game day, which he estimated at between $400,000 and $450,000 a year. The county and the Bills will split the estimated $80,000 insurance cost the county will need to cover the deputies’ actions, and the county will continue to cover the cost of the deputies who handle traffic control.
Details of the proposed new security agreement between the county and the team emerged last week, when Tobe updated county legislators on details of a 10-year lease deal struck in December among the county, the Bills and New York State.
Tobe told county legislators that the new security agreement is one of the only significant changes from a memorandum of understanding that outlines the terms of the new lease. In December, when the deal was announced, the county and the team still were negotiating the extra security.
The county likely will hire deputies from neighboring counties, as well as police officers from area towns, to work part time so the county can provide enough deputies for each game, Wipperman said.
“From the Bills to the sheriff to the county, everybody’s priority is the safety of the fans,” Patronik said.