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Alcohol Outlets as Attractors of Violence and Disorder

A Closer Look at the Neighborhood Environment

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Document date: April 28, 2008
Released online: May 07, 2008

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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Abstract

This report investigates the relationship between alcohol availability, type of alcohol establishment, distribution policies and violence and disorder at the block group level in the District of Columbia. We test whether density of alcohol outlets influences: (1) aggravated assault incidents, (2) calls for service for social "disorder" offenses, and (3) calls for service for a domestic incident, and examine variation in outcomes by time of day/day of week. Spatial econometric regression models are estimated using an information theoretic approach. The findings indicate that on-premise outlets, but not off-premise outlets are a significant predictor of aggravated assault.


Introduction

Since the early 1980s, a substantial literature has linked alcohol use and abuse to criminality. In 1998, the Bureau of Justice Statistics published a comprehensive analysis of victimization and incident data on alcohol and crime showing that that nearly 40 percent of violent victimizations and fatal motor vehicle accidents involve alcohol, and roughly 40 percent of detainees and persons incarcerated report using alcohol at the time they committed their offense (Greenfeld, 1998). These widely cited findings became the backdrop for closer policy attention to understanding and solving the variety of public safety problems associated with the consumption of alcohol (Travis, 1998, 1999).

Around the same time, researchers began testing theories examining whether variations in neighborhood context influence crime rates and the risk of victimization. Sociologists and criminologists reasoned that in addition to individual-level factors influencing alcohol use and criminal behavior, there could be neighborhood-level mechanisms, such as the physical features of the urban landscape, poverty levels, and social organizational features, that either affect the rate of alcohol use or the risk of victimization (Alaniz, Parker, Gallegos, Cartmill, 1998; Gorman, et al., 1998a,b; Scribner et al., 1999). Theories were soon developed that hypothesized a relationship between substance use and violence as stemming from properties of the illicit (or licit) distribution of those substances (see Parker, 1995, Alaniz et al., 1998). With regard to alcohol distribution, because data on levels of sales or consumption at the business or neighborhood level were (and remain) difficult to obtain, many of these studies used the presence of alcohol-selling establishments as a proxy for consumption. In addition, these studies often referenced earlier criminological studies finding evidence for hotspots of crime around liquor stores and bars (see for example, Block and Block, 1995; Roncek and Bell, 1981; Roncek and Maier, 1991; Sherman, Gartin and Buerger, 1989). For the most part, researchers found that the community impacts associated with alcohol outlet density include increased levels of homicide and other assaults, as well as traffic fatalities (LaScala, Gruenewald and Johnson, 2001; Lipton and Gruenewald, 2002; Speer, Gorman, Labouvie and Ontkush, 1998).

As evidence began to accumulate on the association between alcohol outlet density and violence, the availability and accessibility of geographic data began to increase, enabling researchers to conduct more rigorous and systematic assessments of the ecology of violence and crime around alcohol-selling establishments. Over the years, researchers had been calling for comprehensive, theory-based studies of the influence of alcohol outlets on violence and injury. As stated by Lipton and colleagues (2003:67): “[The public health studies on alcohol outlets] tend to be more descriptive in nature, and for the most part have not offered any explicit theoretical explanations as to why high alcohol outlet density and violence are associated with one another.” Researchers also have stressed the importance of conducting place-based ecological studies that can shed light on the situational aspects of crime from the perspective of neighborhoods (Fagan and Davies 2000; Sampson 2001). Very recently, a number of studies have been published that seek to remedy the lack of theoretically-informed and methodologically sound research on the effects of high alcohol outlet densities. Although these studies have strong implications for reducing crime and improving community well-being, they are somewhat limited in their generalizability. Most recent studies have used data from one geographic location in the United States (California) and have not examined neighborhoods smaller than the census tract.

This report describes an Urban Institute study that investigates the relationship between alcohol availability, type of alcohol establishment, distribution policies and violence and disorder at the block group level in the District of Columbia. This study develops and tests a grounded comprehensive theoretical model of the relationship between alcohol availability and violence and disorder. The model captures a wide range of contextual variation in neighborhood places and processes.

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Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice


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