Do Certain Businesses Attract Crime?

October 11th 2015

The prospect of a new liquor store or marijuana dispensary can spark safety concerns in some neighborhoods. But while the idea that particular businesses are crime magnets holds up in some cases, it's not always true, and people's concerns can be based on real evidence or flawed perception.

Image of marijuana shop in San Fernando Valley, CaliforniaWikimedia Commons/Laurie Avocado -

Certain businesses get associated with crime because of the types of communities in which they are frequently found. The clusters of prepaid cell phone stores, fast food joints, tax preparation services, dollar stores, and other fringe businesses that appear in distressed commercial corridors and strip malls can be a red flag to neighbors in better-off communities.

But that doesn't mean they cause crime; the crime may already be in the community.

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High-poverty communities with either perceived or real issues with crime, especially communities of color, typically struggle to attract household name businesses and high-quality establishments. Instead, smaller, independent businesses tend to cluster and dominate, benefiting from relatively cheap rents and the opportunity to fulfill unmet demand — such as check cashing — without big-name competition from, say, a national bank branch.

checks cashed sign at nightWikimedia Commons/Tony Webster -

The "snowball effect of retail” explains why a particular mix of businesses persists in some urban areas. Businesses tend to open where other businesses already exist, and like attracts like, urban development researcher Mari Gallagher told the Chicago Reporter. Businesses in urban markets typically open near establishments their owners consider similar in type or quality.

That's not to say that there isn't a very real connection between some types of business and crime.

Sports stadiums and other large entertainment venues offer a place for shady situations in surrounding areas, some academics say. Large gatherings of people provide criminals with a pool of victims, according to Richard McCleary, a professor at UC Irvine's School of Social Ecology. Stadiums are considered by some to be crime generators that provide "large numbers of potential victims at specific times and within concentrated areas." While more research is needed on the topic, studies of U.K. soccer stadiums, and of college and professional football games, have shown a possible connection between sports facilities and crime in the areas around them.

“Any business that you’d call a destination hotspot that draws people who are potential victims can attract crime,” McCleary said, adding that spectators provide the opportunity for muggings, car break-ins, theft and property crimes for the opportunistic criminal as people pour in and out of an area.

Beyond sports venues, everything from theme parks such as Disneyland to concert venues and large outdoor festivals can attract crime, which is why you can find a significant police or security presence in those settings.

Liquor store neon signWikimedia Commons/Kristine Paulus -

Liquor stores can lead to more crime, according to a report by Kathryn Stewart of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. When they appear in poor communities of color, the impact is worse:

A study of changes in outlet density over time as related to violence in California found that regardless of other neighborhood characteristics, an increase in outlets increased violence. In neighborhoods with a high minority population and low incomes, the effect was more than four times greater than for the statewide sample of communities.

Research hasn't nailed down a reason why a higher concentration of alcohol-selling outlets increases violence. But the report explores several possible ones:

  • Alcohol outlets can encourage social disorder and attract loiterers and public drinkers who "send a message that this is a neighborhood in which normal rules about orderly behavior are not enforced."
  • More outlets "result in a large number of people under the influence of alcohol," which increases their chances of violence and makes them more susceptible to violence.

Assaults are more likely at liquor-serving establishments such as bars, according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, which published a guide on its website that addresses "The Problem of Assaults in and Around Bars." Most attackers and victims are men aged 18 to 29, according to the center.

Night clubs tend to have higher levels of reported violence compared to neighborhood bars and social clubs, possibly because the patrons are typically less acquainted.

A "high proportion of young male strangers" in alcohol-serving establishments, aggressive bouncers, a high concentration of establishments, and late closing times are all contributing factors to bar assaults. Also, “poor ventilation, high noise levels, and lack of seating make bars uncomfortable,” according to the center. “This discomfort increases the risks of aggression and violence. Crowding around the bar, in restrooms, on dance floors, around pool tables … creates the risk of accidental bumping and irritation, which can also start fights.”

The center goes on to say in its guide that “those who fight in bars are not deterred by negative consequences (such as minor injuries, tension among friends, or trouble with the police), all of which tend to be delayed.”

The perceived rewards are more immediate and include feeling righteous about fighting for a worthy cause, increasing group cohesion among friends, getting attention, feeling powerful, and having entertaining stories to tell. Although some assault victims do something to precipitate the assault, many do not. Most are smaller than their attackers, are either alone or in a small group, and are drunk more often than their attackers. Attackers target victims who appear drunker than themselves.

Other businesses that can indirectly promote crime?

  • Establishments "that require large parking structures, such as suburban office parks or malls, according to the Encyclopedia of Victimology and Crime Prevention. "These structures," according to the encyclopedia, "can facilitate vehicle theft and thefts from automobiles, with the level of incidence being largely dependent on the relative quality of parking lot management schemes and surveillance systems."
  • Pawn shops are linked to crimes that include theft, some experts argue: The stores help facilitate a market for stolen, also known as "hot," items. But other experts have minimized this effect. “Pawn shop owners work very closely with police departments," McCleary said. "And if someone is trying to sell stolen goods, a pawn shop would probably be the last place in the world a smart criminal would go to."

What about marijuana dispensaries? Accounts from law enforcement, researchers, and advocates vary around the country when it comes to their effect on crime, so it's hard to say definitively if dispensaries increase crime. But because banks remain reluctant to do businesses with legal marijuana-related establishments, large amounts of cash sometimes have to be kept on the premises, and that creates security concerns.

"This results in stockpiles of cash at dispensary locations and with the owners and employees of the dispensaries, making them more susceptible to crimes such as robbery, theft, and burglary," according to a 2014 report out of the University of Virginia. "One way to attenuate this affect," said the report, "might be for the federal government to allow banks to do business with dispensaries that are considered legal by the local government."

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