Local police chiefs worried about expanding booze sales, increasing enforcement duties

As the state House on Thursday approved a bill to privatize liquor sales in Pennsylvania, local law enforcement officials were warning of negative impacts the legislation could have locally.

State College Police Chief Tom King cautioned that privatization of beer, wine and spirits sales could also lead to more alcohol-fueled crime and further stretch budgets of police departments tasked with keeping alcohol abuse in check.

And those issues could be exacerbated in a college community with a youthful population, said King.

“It’s a big concern,” he said.

In essence, the bill would create 1,200 wine and spirit licenses that beer distributors would get the first shot at obtaining. It would also give grocery stores the opportunity to sell wines. The state stores would eventually be phased out.

Proponents of the plan said it would generate tens of millions of dollars for the state. It also figures to lead to more stores being able to sell alcohol and for longer hours during the week.

For King, that greater access goes hand-in-hand with increased risk for abuse.

He pointed to a study conducted in 2011 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that recommended against further privatization of alcohol sales. The study found “strong evidence privatization results in increased per-capita alcohol consumption, a well-established proxy for excessive consumption.”

“Based on density and increased hours of operation, you also increase alcohol-related crime,” King said. “That’s my experience, but that’s also based on research.”

And if there is an increase in alcohol-related crime, there must be an increase in enforcement. Local police chiefs are worried that responsibility will fall on their already-stretched budgets.

“I believe the enforcement will fall more to local police,” said Ferguson Township Police Chief Diane Conrad. “I’m always concerned about our ability to provide sufficient services, certainly that’s one concern.”

Conrad suggested some money generated by the plan be sent to police departments.

“It’s a drug, and it creates a lot of behavior and health issues” King said. “It’s used in apartment buildings, streets and fraternities. Our local taxpayers pay all the bills for that and get nothing out of the sale of alcohol.”

For King, another potential issue is increased competition between new vendors who have shelled out large sums of money for the right to sell alcohol.

“Most will be responsible, but others might take some chances. They might roll the dice,” King said. “There is more of a motivation to sell illegally if you get the wrong owners, and we know a certain percentage will be.”

Bellefonte Police Chief Shawn Weaver said he is concerned that could lead to more underage drinkers being able to purchase alcohol at stores.

And the local police chiefs are not alone. The 1,200-some members of the state Chiefs of Police Association sent a letter last week to the General Assembly expressing “significant concerns” about the bill.

In the letter, the association said the bill would creates public safety concerns and taxes the resources of local law enforcement without providing funding to address the issues.