Cities Target Alcohol Licensing As a Way to Fight Crime

Over the past few decades, numerous studies have found that alcohol consumption is associated with a significant portion of homicides.

Over the past few decades, numerous studies have found that alcohol consumption is associated with a significant portion of homicides. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

A new report recognizes cities that have made efforts to enhance community safety by limiting alcohol availability.

Over the past few decades, numerous studies have found that alcohol consumption is associated with a significant portion of homicides. Often, these murders and other violent crimes happen in the vicinity of alcohol outlets, leading cities to take on zoning and licensing ordinances as a means of controlling crime. 

A new report from CityHealth, a policy research organization, grades the nation’s 40 largest cities on their efforts to reduce the density of liquor outlets, impose operating conditions on alcohol retailers, and become more deliberate in their processes granting and renewing alcohol licenses.

Eight cities, including Chicago, Boston, and Las Vegas, received a gold medal, meaning they have a policy that applies to all alcohol sales, addresses public safety, and authorizes the city to close an alcohol retailer. Another eight cities, including San Francisco, Memphis, and Nashville, received a silver medal, meaning they had a law that applies only to some alcohol sales, such as policies that apply only to new retailers. The remaining 24 cities did not have such policies in place. 

David Jernigan, a senior policy advisor for CityHealth and and a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said city leaders should think about these kind of policies because of the relationship between drinking and crime. “The bottom line is that in any situation with the potential for violence, adding alcohol is like putting gasoline on a lit fire—it will predictably make the situation worse,” he said.

Jernigan said off-premise outlets, like convenience and liquor stores, can become hot spots for crime, more so than bars and restaurants that sell alcohol. “Off-premise outlets in particular—the ones that are often over-represented in poor and minority neighborhoods—help create the conditions for unsupervised drinking,” he said.

Cities commonly use alcohol regulations to address nuisance outlets—ones where police are frequently called to the scene, or where violence has become common. But not all cities are able to fully control their alcohol policy, as noted in a legal analysis of state preemption conducted by Alcohol Policy Consultations, a research organization that prepares reports for local governments and nonprofits. The group found that the alcohol regulations involve “a complex interplay between state and local governments, much of which relates to the amount of control that local governments have over the number, types, locations, and retail practices of retail alcohol outlets in their particular geographic area.”

In places where the state doesn’t preempt localities from designing their own regulations, as is the case in California, some communities have created strict distance-based policies to regulate the density of alcohol outlets. The city of Rohnert Park, for example, set limits requiring that alcohol retailers not operate within 1,000 feet of each other.

Cities across the country have tried similar approaches, with varied success. In Savannah, Georgia, this year, the city council debated an ordinance that would require convenience stores with alcohol licenses to be at least 1,000 feet apart in order to prevent “saturation” in any particular neighborhood.  

Though no distance regulations were ultimately approved, the city did tighten licensing rules, including requiring applicants to submit a written public safety plan when applying for an alcohol license. Bridget Lidy, the planning and urban design director for the city, spoke in favor of the regulations. “There are some concerns from some of the urban neighborhoods in reference to the convenience stores and how there are issues associated with them, including loitering, littering, drinking on the property. So we’re looking at trying to create additional standards through our zoning code and alcohol ordinance,” she said.

Baltimore, too, has considered alcohol regulations in relation to the city’s homicide problem. In 2016, the city council passed a sweeping overhaul of the alcohol zoning code, targeting businesses situated in poor residential neighborhoods for closure. Though the city has a policy of no more than one alcohol outlet per thousand people, studies have found the actual number to be more than double that number, with 1,300 alcohol licenses for a city that should be capped around 600.

Jernigan, along with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, had been encouraging the city to take action on liquor licensing and zoning for years. Recent research in the Journal of Community Psychology found that “liquor stores have long been found to have a robust and enduring relationship to violence” in the city and suggested that “decreasing the saturation of liquor stores in these communities” could help with the homicide rate.

But store owners aren’t pleased with the changes. Stores marked for closure were given a  2019 deadline to move or stop selling, which 30 owners have appealed so far. The owners are also organizing behind Thiru Vignarajah, a Democratic former prosecutor running for mayor in 2020, who said that the city shouldn’t scapegoat liquor stores for crime. 

“There’s no question that you’d rather have a restaurant rather than a bar, a bar rather than a liquor store,” Vignarajah told The Baltimore Sun. “But there’s a question whether you’d rather have a liquor store than an empty lot.”

Jernigan said that the best practice for city leaders who want to reduce crime is to use community-based monitoring of existing outlets and to solicit community input during the license renewal process. The idea has been pioneered by the city of Oakland, California, which requires liquor stores to pay a fee to cover the cost of monitoring crime around alcohol outlets. “In states … where alcohol licensing happens primarily at the state level, this process gives local communities a voice and an avenue when difficulties arise, or when outlets are seeking to expand or proliferate in a neighborhood,” he said.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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