Could reducing alcohol access solve Baltimore's murder problem?

Baltimore City leaders and communities have many potential solutions to address surging homicides, Among them: reducing the number of alcohol outlets.

Murder clusters around alcohol outlets. Each additional alcohol outlet in a census tract raises the homicide rate 1.6 percent. Nearly half of all homicides — 47 percent — are caused by excessive drinking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This means that the murder wouldn’t have happened if the perpetrator hadn’t been drinking. Apply CDC’s calculations to Baltimore, and 161 of the 343 homicides in 2017 were caused by excessive drinking.

How did we get here? Until recently, Baltimore had a state standard of no more than one alcohol outlet for every 1,000 people, even though the city has in double that number of outlets and some of our neighborhoods have one outlet for every 20 people. Often, the neighborhoods most saturated with alcohol establishments are low income and African American.

We must have a serious conversation about violent crime and how it’s often fueled by alcohol. Only then can we have conversations about equitable communities (walkable streets, trash control, affordable housing, education, and jobs and job training).

We, a community leader and a public health researcher, both live in or near a “transformation zone” identified by Mayor Catherine Pugh as being violence hotspots. In Baltimore, from 2012-2016, 89 percent of homicides occurred in neighborhoods that are mostly African American, and 86 percent occurred in neighborhoods with annual incomes less than $50,000.

Violent crime goes down when alcohol is less available and laws are enforced. What Baltimore needs is more restrictive alcohol policies, meaning not expanding hours and days of alcohol sales, regular and proactive enforcement of alcohol laws, and stricter regulation of the density of outlets through both licensing and zoning.

City leaders and communities have an opportunity to reduce crime in our neighborhoods by lowering the number of alcohol outlets. To their credit, the city recently adopted zoning provisions with the potential for removing liquor stores in residential areas and ensuring more accountability for alcohol outlets’ operating practices. But Baltimore won’t be able to enforce these provisions unless all stakeholders — the mayor, state legislature, liquor board, City Council, and the communities — cooperate to establish an effective citizen review process. While these new provisions are good, the city can’t wait two to four years for these changes to take effect. People are dying in our streets. Already in 2018, we’ve lost 11 people to violent crime. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

It’s in this urgent spirit that we recommend that our city leaders immediately:

  • Prohibit any further “spot zoning” or transferring/selling liquor licenses in residential zones. When the city’s rewrite of the zoning code started, 105 liquor stores were slated for removal. Today, there are approximately 80 left. While some closed on their own, several had the land use changed to commercial, allowing them to remain, which means fewer liquor stores in residential areas will be removed than the law originally intended. This practice of “spot zoning” continues today.
  • Address inefficiencies in the 311 system, making it easier to log criminal activity related to alcohol outlets. Being able to link criminal activity to alcohol outlets is the cornerstone of empowering neighbors to bring complaints against problem alcohol outlets before the liquor board.
  • Encourage the Baltimore City state delegation to remove the prohibition on citizens using zoning violations to bring complaints before the liquor board. Excluding zoning from the accountability process diminishes its effectiveness.
  • Advocate for dedicated funds for enforcement of alcohol laws. Communities throughout the country have established dedicated funding streams by having alcohol outlets, not taxpayers, pay enforcement costs.

We have to think creatively about how to stop Baltimore’s violent crime problem, especially murders, before it’s too late. Few people will be drawn to our great city if they continue to see headlines about our ever-increasing homicide rate. Our city leaders and communities have their work cut out for them, and addressing the problem of too many alcohol outlets fueling too many murders is a great place to start — and lead.

Pamela Trangenstein (ptrange1@jhu.edu) is a Middle East/Perkins resident and Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Inez Robb (irobb918@gmail.com) is a Sandtown-Winchester resident and on the leadership board of the Baltimore Good Neighbor Coalition.

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