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?
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: Indiana, Riverside, 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 more retail outlets that sell single-serve containers of alcohol in their coolers—even the more cooler space for beer—the more violent crime.
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.
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.”
It’s no surprise, however, that poor neighborhoods are hit harder. The most dangerous type of liquor store is one that offers to cash a check for a fee and then sells the check casher, say, a pint of Thunderbird. Booze-selling convenience stores, which are open late and store cash, are themselves the target of a high rate of robberies. An organic wine store on an upscale street is less vulnerable.
But the easiest solution—convert privately owned and run stores to state control—is utterly impractical, and arguably unfair to the store owner. The alcohol industry has a great deal of influence over federal and state politicians. Most of the reforms, or efforts, take place at the county or city level and involve new zoning laws restricting the number of liquor stores. But new laws do not apply to established businesses.
Public health officials can often find legal grounds to reduce the concentration of liquor stores if they look hard enough. For example, in Baltimore, which has long had progressive activist leadership in its health department, officials identified some 125 booze businesses that were operating in the middle of a residential block—a violation of zoning law. When a crackdown was announced—the shops were given two years to move or to stop selling booze—there was a massive outcry from the city’s large Korean-American community. It turns out that these folks owned 90% of the “unlicensed” stores. The reform has stalled for the time being.
Despite the CompStat evidence, liquor and convenience stories are not viewed by most citizens as a pox on the health of society. True, they partake of the general stigma surrounding drinking and drunks, and they add nothing to the real estate value of the block. But they are open at times when other stores go dark—whether at night or in seriously bad weather. Retail stores stock not only beer and wine but also groceries. But while the stores may contribute to (not cause) violent crime, the employees who work there are themselves frequent victims.
When I was growing up, a liquor store was a hub for our entire family. Norman’s Wines & Liquors on Spring Street in Ossining, New York, was our home away from home. A friendly guy always behind the counter, Norman was my alcoholic father’s general-purpose local tradesman. He cashed checks, listened to troubles, baby-sat when my father had errands to do, dispensed cases of gin, vermouth and whiskey and was an all-around factotum of stability in a sea of instability. He told me that I was pretty, he called my mother elegant, and he provided my brother with empty wooden crates for the building of hot rods. Spring Street was Ossining’s second Main Street—a sketchy neighborhood near the famous Sing Sing prison.
Norman seemed like the quintessential small-town nice guy. Yet violent crime in innocent-seeming neighborhoods was one of the great themes in my father’s literary work. Now even friendly Norman seems to me a symbol of the way liquor and trouble go together—whether it’s in a computerized subway map, a local bar or a leafy suburban cul-de-sac.
Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.