Baltimore has become the latest U.S. city to target liquor stores in an effort to curb crime in troubled neighborhoods.
A proposed change to zoning laws would force liquor outlets to move to sites especially zoned for liquor sales, to sell their liquor licenses, or to convert their businesses to non-liquor stores. The city council is expected to vote on the measure by this fall, officials say.
With two liquor retailers for every 1,000 people, Baltimore has twice the number of liquor stores than is considered a reasonable standard nationally, says David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The overabundance results partly from population decline, he says.
“In Baltimore, what happened is that people left but the [liquor] stores didn’t,” adds Jernigan, whose center has been collaborating with city officials.
“And Baltimore’s problem is not atypical across the county wherever there are large, urban populations: The more outlets there are, the more you’ve got homicides, the more you’ve got assaults …
“What Baltimore is saying is, ‘OK, enough is enough.'”
97 Liquor Stores
Citing what he describes as one of the most glaring signs of Baltimore’s overload of alcohol outlets, Jernigan says 97 such retailers are situated within a mile of the Johns Hopkins campus in the Homewood neighborhood.
“There is a striking difference between neighborhoods where the per capita income is higher and neighborhoods where it’s on the lower end … [It seems like] there’s a liquor store on every corner,” Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city’s health commissioner, tells The Crime Report.
“Our approach is … revamping the zoning code and going back to the fundamentals of the zoning, which is to promote and protect the health of the community.”
The range of cities that have altered land use laws to curb alcohol sales and the troubling activity associated with them—from rowdy crowds and loitering to crime—include Madison, WI and Oakland, CA.
In 1993, Oakland imposed “public nuisance standards”—gauged by nearby drug sales, noise, and calls for police to intercede against those and related problems—that, if un-addressed, will cause a liquor retailer to lose their sales license.
Since then, according to a 2008 report by Alcohol Policy Consultations in Felton, CA, 15 other California municipalities have adopted Oakland’s model.
Just as the Madison and Oakland laws met with protests, so has Baltimore’s.
“These businesses result in tax benefits to the city,” attorney and lobbyist Lisa Harris Jones, speaking on behalf of the Korean-American Grocers and Licensed Beverage Association, testified during a January hearing on the proposed zoning change.
“They do business where others won’t and they sell groceries, not just liquor.”
Attorney Sean Malone, added during the same public hearing: “The causal relationship with between the impacted liquor stores and poor health outcomes/crime isn’t clear. If zoning can’t differentiate between good businesses and bad businesses, why target only some liquor stores?”
Alcohol ‘Density’ and Violence
Nevertheless, several studies—including ones that have reshaped laws on where liquor stores can open—have cited the link between “alcohol density” and violent crime.
Among them, a 1995 study focusing on Los Angeles County, led by researchers at the University of Southern California’s Department of Preventative Medicine, concluded that three additional crimes per liquor store were committed in connection to liquor sales.
In 2001, Texas A&M University studied the trend in impoverished Camden, NJ and conducted follow-up research in 2004, spotlighting overwhelmingly poor, black and/or Latino sections of Austin, TX and San Antonio, TX.
In 2010, researchers from Morehouse School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a similar study of Washington, D.C.
Using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, they concluded that, in 2006, a third of crime victims were under the impression that their victimizer was drunk. They also concluded that for every additional alcohol outlet, violent crime—including rape, shootings and other assaults—rose 4 percent.
“Compared to other categories of violent crime, alcohol-related violence is most prevalent in homicidal violence,” that study of D.C. concluded.
More recently, a 2013 Indiana University study in the non-metropolitan “college town” of Bloomington, the university’s home, concluded that both simple and aggravated assaults were linked to alcohol density.
Baltimore’s Mel Freeman, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, says the city faces some tough decisions on the issue.
The likelihood that even longstanding retailers might have to close, losing their livelihoods and laying off employees, as some mentioned during the January hearing, is an unfortunate but lesser aspect of the debate, he contends.
“There are several examples throughout the country—in parts of California, in Midwestern cities—where a reduction in the number of liquor outlets in low-income communities reduces crime that came in conjunction with those liquor outlets,” Freeman tells The Crime Report.
“Any time there is a tool that allows a neighborhood to be stronger and better, we’re all for that. This proposal is a tool.”
Quality of Life
Improving the quality of life in Baltimore neighborhoods where alcohol density is just one in a series of problems is a key goal of the proposal, health commissioner Barbot says.
She also leads Healthy Baltimore 2015 which, in addition to lobbying to trim the roster of liquor retailers, is tackling such issues as housing, transportation and food accessibility.
What’s proven to be problematic in a place like Baltimore, health commissioner Barbot and John Hopkins’ Jernigan say, is that the liquor purveyors have operated under a fairly loose framework.
Alcohol is sold, Jernigan says, in “convenience stores, package stores, taverns—that are actually package stores but have placed a bowl of peanuts at the counter—drug stores, (and) on-premise outlets such as bars and restaurants … ”
Says the health commissioner: “For 40 years, they’ve been practicing outside of the law.”
Jernigan says the point of the zoning change is to “bring everybody under the same rules, and give these businesses a preset period of time during which they can recoup some of their business investment”
“We recognize [that] these are upstanding citizens investing in the community,” the commissioner adds. “We don’t want them to go away.”
The best outcome, according to the commissioner, would be if the businesses stayed in the neighborhoods but transformed themselves into cafes, hardware, nutritious food stores and other services.
Freelance journalist Katti Gray covers criminal justice, health, higher education and other topics for a range of national and regional magazines, newspapers and online news sites. A contributing editor of The Crime Report, she welcomes comments from readers.