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The Case for Closing Liquor Stores

Violent crime has intractable causes like poverty, drugs and guns. But one cause -- the number of businesses selling booze in a neighborhood -- could be directly controlled. Should it be?

Photo Credit: J.D.S/ Shutterstock.com


Liquor stores attract violent crime the way honey attracts flies. On many maps showing the location of both liquor stores and violent crime, the dots representing crime look like metal filings drawn to a powerful magnet—the booze outlet. The discovery that violent crime is related to places, not only people, and that about half of all crimes tend to occur in about 5% of locations, was made in New York City in the 1980s. Focusing on the role that alcohol outlets play in a city's violent crime patterns has vastly improved the effectiveness and efficiency of policing. But when it comes to the obvious logical conclusion—that the number of stores be dramatically reduced—public officials have balked. Putting small businesses out of business is not the American way.

Since the 1980s, this systematic approach has changed the way crime is dealt with in many states. So-called criminogenic places, or hot spots, often have poor lighting, transit stops, abandoned buildings, nightclubs and…liquor outlets. A mass of evidence showing the connection—in terms of both proximity and concentration—between liquor stores and crimes like murder, rape and assault has come from all over:  IndianaRiverside, California, Baltimore’s John Hopkins University, and the environmental think-tank the  Pacific Institute, using statistics from New Jersey to Australia, to name a few. 

In a  study at the University of California/Riverside comparing federal crime data for youths, ages 13 to 24, to a wide range of factors, including the density of liquor (and beer and wine) outlets, in 91 of the biggest US cities, researchers found that a higher concentration of booze businesses was significantly linked to higher rates of homicide. Access to alcohol was right up there with poverty, drugs, guns and gangs. And of all these causes, only liquor stores are even remotely susceptible to direct control. “Our findings suggest that reducing alcohol outlet density should significantly reduce the trends of youth homicide,” said Robert N. Parker, co-author of the UC/Riverside study.

A related  study found even more specific factors that further underscore the connection between liquor stores and crime: including more retail outlets that sell  single-serve containers of alcohol in their coolers. Even  the percentage of cooler space made a difference—the more space for loose Millers, grab-and-go Four Lokos and the like, the more violent crime.

The original  observation was made by Jack Maple, a dapper, hard-drinking New York City transit cop—one of the most dangerous jobs in the city—back in the bad old 1980s when the city's subway system was a hive of robberies. On his apartment wall, Maple drew a detailed map—hundreds of pages—of the subway system, showing that most crimes happened in a few areas. Sitting at his table at Elaine’s, a famous bar and restaurant that catered to writers and artists and other hard-drinking local celebrities, Maple, by then a lieutenant, bragged that he would cut violent subway crime in half. He did. By putting policemen in the hot spots where most crime happened, Maple made the subways safe. (New York’s tenacious graffiti artists were able to elude the men in blue, however.)

The negative effects of liquor stores strike local neighborhoods whether they are poor or rich, according to  studies at the University of California/Berkeley. “People purchase alcohol and consume it close by, and they become bold enough to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do,” a California policeman says. ”Or they consume it and become prey.”Maple showed his maps to fellow transit policeman—and Elaine’s regular—William Bratton. Bratton became NYPD police commissioner in 1994, expanding Maple’s strategy to the department’s method of mapping all crime, called CompStat (“Computer Statistics”). Now called “Operation Impact,” it has cut crime in New York City (and in the many other big cities that have adopted it) to record lows. Bratton and Maple, who was promoted to deputy police commissioner for crime control strategies, were dubbed the Crime Fighting Kings. Under Ray Kelly, police commissioner since 2003, crime has continued to fall, even as the NYPD itself has shrunk by 15%. In 2012 violent crimes hit a historic low in New York City.

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