Will privatizing state stores drive up crime?

Posted: July 29, 2013

W INE, LIQUOR, Beer, Champagne is painted in big, red letters at the entrance.

Inside the dingy, glass front door of Stop 'n Shop Discount Liquors on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard, a wall is plastered with alcohol ads featuring women in thong bikinis and hot pants.

Business is good, said manager Tom Prom, 32. But being open seven days a week until 10 p.m. in a scruffy section of Pennsauken, Camden County, requires precautions. Someone on staff is always armed and security cameras and monitors record just about every square foot inside and outside the store, he said.

If Pennsylvania privatizes its liquor stores later this year - as Gov. Corbett and some Republican lawmakers want - similar precautions will have to be taken in Philadelphia, Prom predicted.

"If they go that way, it will be more benefit for the consumer, but more trouble too," he said. "The crime rate is going to go higher, because the liquor stores will stay open late and people can get their hands on liquor [later] instead of the cold beer that is going on in Philly now."

Missing from the debate over the effort to privatize Pennsylvania's liquor stores is whether the change would create more gun violence and crime in and around those stores in Philadelphia.

Statistics provided to the Daily News by the Philadelphia Police Department and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board show that of the 884 robberies of businesses recorded last year, only five were in the city's 51 state liquor stores. The numbers were similar in the previous year: 901 robberies, only eight in state stores.

In gun-crazed Philadelphia, where at least 300 homicides have been recorded in each of the last 10 years, none was inside a state-run liquor store.

Camden County authorities did not provide statistics for crime at private liquor stores, but one expert says there's a reason it's so low in Philly's state stores.

"I think there's an aura around those stores. They're well-lit, they have security cameras and state-of-the-art point-of-sale systems," said Steve Schmidt, of the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association in Alexandria, Va. "They have a lot of things in place that make committing crimes more difficult."

Although the state Senate failed to vote on a liquor-privatization bill this summer after a House bill passed in March, the issue is expected to heat up again this fall in Harrisburg.

Supporters of privatization talk up free-market principles and say it would make shopping more convenient for consumers, allowing them to buy hard liquor, wine and beer under one roof and at twice as many stores - and maybe at a discount. (Currently, beer is sold by private distributors and in licensed bars and restaurants.)

Opponents have voiced a litany of concerns, including the fear of increased alcoholism and drunken-driving accidents and the loss of more than 3,000 jobs currently held by employees at nearly 600 state stores. Some worry that private liquor stores would be festooned with posters featuring barely clothed women hawking cheap booze, like the artwork inside Stop 'n Shop.

Liquor stores and crime

Other cities have addressed the problems stemming from growth in the number of liquor stores.

Oakland, Calif., and Madison, Wis., have enacted laws that successfully reduced crime linked to liquor establishments, while similar legislation is pending in Baltimore, according to the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"Lots of studies done in lots of cities tend to find that as you increase the number of liquor stores, you also increase violence," said David Jernigan, director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Two 2011 studies at the University of California, Riverside, found a correlation between the density of alcohol outlets and violent-crime rates among young people ages 13 to 24 in U.S. cities.

A 2010 study published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine concluded that the link between alcohol-outlet density and violent crimes is so significant in Washington, D.C.'s poor and minority neighborhoods that policies were urgently needed to regulate outlets and to prevent their proliferation.

But Mabel Harris, 58, a recently laid-off School District of Philadelphia employee, scoffed at those studies.

"Crime is everywhere, and it's not because of no liquor store," Harris said, smoking a cigarette on Chelten Avenue in Germantown.

Across the street, Larry Williams, 46, was more ambivalent at his pretzel-and-hot-dog cart.

"Liquor stores are well-controlled now, so if you bring in another program, there might not be as much control," he said.

"Maybe they can do both, make it work for everybody."

Victor Nela, manager of Vicky's Discount Liquor, on Route 130 near Drexel Avenue in Pennsauken, suspected that the six-figure cost of a state liquor license would shield Philadelphia from becoming home to a glut of smaller private stores, which tend to be crime magnets.

"I would think the big-corporation people would get the licenses, because they have the money. So you won't have the regular mom-and-pop kind of guys who come and run the stores like a family business," said Nela, 31.

State Sen. Charles T. McIlhinney Jr., a Bucks County Republican who sponsored the privatization bill that stalled in the Senate, conceded that social problems could arise, but said his bill would provide funding to address some of them.

"Any change at all that we make is going to have a social impact. It's much like the gambling issue. You have to address it by putting money into treating the social costs and policing and licensing," said McIlhinney.

"But that's not going to stop those social costs from happening. I clearly empathize with" privatization opponents, he said.

Under McIlhinney's bill, all 1,200 privately run beer distributors in the state - including the 119 in Philly - would be eligible to start selling spirits and wine as well, and the state-run stores would be phased out.

Joe Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, said if the bill passes, the added liquor stores would necessitate growing the 4,100-member State Police to its authorized capacity of 4,600 officers.

'Recipe for more chaos'

Few people have seen urban crime as Curtis Sliwa has seen it.

As founder and director of the Guardian Angels, Sliwa, 59, for 34 years has traveled the world organizing volunteers to fight crime in cities. The group now has 5,000 red-beret-wearing volunteers who patrol in 130 cities, 87 of which are in the U.S.

During those travels, he hasn't seen any city benefit from laws that create more liquor stores, said Sliwa, whose organization has patrols in the gritty neighborhoods of Kensington and Somerset in Philadelphia.

"It's a recipe for more chaos, more crime, more violence, more disruption," he said.

"You're trying to create a better quality of life, and a liquor store certainly does not do that," said Sliwa. "The advertisements, that's the other thing. It's going to be wall-to-wall posters of scantily clad women."

But not every expert thinks a rise in crime would accompany privatization.

Nathan A. Benefield, of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a free-market think tank that supports privatization, said he was not aware of any definitive link between liquor stores and crime.

"I don't think there would be any significant amount of change in crime," he said. "Look at Washington state, which recently privatized and added a lot more stores. We really didn't see any change in their crime rate last year."

The Philadelphia Police Department "will adjust accordingly, if adjustments need to be made" for privatization, spokesman Lt. John Stanford said.

Mayor Nutter, meanwhile, "has deep concerns beyond the details of any one bill," spokesman Mark McDonald said.

"Namely, the potential proliferation of liquor establishments all over the city and the potential problems, from crime to addiction, that could arise as a result of an aggressive expansion of these businesses."


On Twitter: @MensahDean

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