The Buffalo Bills’ battle against the New York Jets on Thursday promises to be a challenging night for the locals, with the game marking the team’s home opener, a nationally broadcast night game and a clash against a division rival.
But we’re not just talking about the challenges facing Bills players and coaches.
We’re talking about the tough test facing law enforcement officials, who promise to be on high alert, providing a highly vigilant and visible presence at the Bills first home prime-time game since 2012.
“Quite simply, it’s probably one of our most challenging games since 2012,” said Erie County Sheriff’s Chief Scott M. Joslyn, who oversees the game-day security crew outside New Era Field. “It’s our home opener, NFL prime time, a divisional game, and the opposing team’s fans are going to be able to travel here. All of those elements are coming together at the same time.”
For years, law enforcement officials have called that a “perfect storm” of challenging factors.
“Recognizing that all the ingredients of a perfect storm may exist, every resource and asset that we have will be deployed,” added Joslyn, chief of the sheriff’s Police Services Division. “Working with our partners in law enforcement, we’re confident that we will be able to provide a safe experience and give people [a positive] game-day experience.”
Two factors especially promise to put law enforcement officials on high alert: the time of the game and the opponent.
First, there is the 8:25 p.m. kickoff, expected to have a huge impact on pre-game drinking.
Since stadium parking lots open four hours before game time, tailgating there can start at 4:25 p.m., compared to 9 a.m. for a Sunday 1 p.m. game. Fans may come straight from work, ready to unwind, some of them for a coming three-day weekend.
“It’s more likely that folks will drink in the evening rather than Sunday morning,” Joslyn said. “You may see more intoxicated people. That stands to reason.”
Alcohol fuels much of the rowdy behavior seen both inside and outside the stadium, whether it’s tailgating stunts recorded for YouTube posterity, taunts between the two teams’ fans, overly drunken behavior and possibly drunken driving afterward.
The night game also cuts visibility somewhat for deputies and officers patrolling parking lots on the lookout for any trouble.
The opponents, the longtime divisional rival Jets, also present a challenge.
Teams like the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams don’t attract as many of their own fans to Bills home games. The heated rivalry with the Jets, the proximity of the two communities, the number of Jets fans in central and upstate New York and the easy access to tickets on the secondary ticket markets should all translate into at least a few thousand fans wearing green and white jerseys Thursday night.
“We just know that we’re going to see Jets fans in high numbers, because it’s just down the Thruway,” Joslyn said. “We know that that’s one of the ingredients in the perfect storm.”
Having large numbers of the other team’s fans means that deputies and officers will be on the lookout for taunting between rival factions, especially in the parking lots and outside the stadium.
Taunting can be good-natured, between groups of fans exchanging high-fives and a few laughs. But it also can be confrontational.
“When they stand nose-to-nose and taunt each other and exchange gestures, that’s when we make an immediate presence and stop it before it gets worse,” Joslyn said.
While authorities patrol the area around the stadium, especially before and after the game, they’re mindful of the possible stakes involved.
A few years ago, a 26-year-old Rochester-area man drowned in a creek near the stadium after having been ejected from the Bills-Miami Dolphins game. That was on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012.
It was the last time the Bills hosted a prime-time game.