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October 31, 2010

wet/dry: A look at Athens — Police chief: ‘Things never really changed’

Overall crime rate increases; DUIs, alcohol crashes decrease

Some things changed, but most stayed the same.

That’s the assessment by Athens Police Chief Wayne Harper on the effect legal alcohol sales had on the Limestone County city of Athens, where he has worked for the past 22 years. Alcohol sales went into effect in Athens — a city of around 19,000 — in 2004.

“Our crime rate has been pretty stable,” Harper said. “Things never really changed that much, and pretty well stayed about the same after going wet.”

With Cullman residents voting on a referendum to potentially legalize alcohol sales on Nov. 2, The Times is taking a look at how the crime rate changed in Athens after going wet. Cullman has a comparable population of around 16,000, both cities have similar demographics, both cities are located along the Interstate 65 corridor, and Cullman officials have pledged to pass a strict local alcohol ordinance if sales pass — something Athens already has in place.

Statistics show the overall crime rate in Athens consistently increased in the years leading up to, during, and after legal sales were approved in the city — though the majority of the crimes recorded were minor.

The amount of index crimes rose from around 680 in 2003 to 834 in 2009 in Athens, according to Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center statistics. In that same period, the crime index in Cullman decreased from 909 in 2003 to 804 in 2009.

The vast majority of reported crimes in both areas stemmed from incidents involving thefts and burglaries, as opposed to major crimes like homicide and rape.

The amount of homicides in Athens remained flat before and after the city went wet. There were four reported in the six years leading up to the point when sales were legalized, and four more after sales were instituted.

But, the amount of sexual crimes increased in that time period, with 15 reported rapes from the six years before legal sales, and 19 in the next six years.

Though statistics show an up-tick in incidents, Harper said alcohol sales have had little effect on the safety or quality of life in Athens.

“I don’t think it’s had much of an impact, as far as our calls for services are concerned,” he said. “We haven’t had the need to add any new officers, or anything like that.”

Local pastor Ken Allen, an opponent of legal sales in Cullman, said he believes no good can come from closer accessibility to alcohol in the community.

“Does anyone really believe that going wet will help the alcohol problem?” he said. “At this point now, an unemployed person without a car can’t go and buy alcohol. So, with the increased availability, he or she will be able to walk down to the corner store, bring it home, and that will lead at some point to someone in that home being victimized, or someone in their area being victimized.”

Despite the modest growth in the crime rate, the amount of alcohol related traffic fatalities in Limestone County has decreased since sales were legalized in Athens, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data.

There were nine alcohol impaired fatalities in 2005, six in 2006, eight in 2007, six in 2008 and six in 2009.

Alcohol-related fatalities in Cullman County increased in that period, from five in 2005, seven in 2006, 19 in 2007, nine in 2008, and seven in 2009.

Detailed NHTSA records before 2005 were not available.

Driving under the influence (DUI) arrests also decreased in Athens in the years after sales were legalized. Athens averaged 266 DUI arrests from 2001-2003, and that average dipped to 258-per-year in 2004-2006.

A 2004 report compiled by the Cullman Police Department, which compared alcohol arrests in Cullman to 12 comparable cities, also noted no discernible advantage from remaining dry at that time. The report found that Cullman was tied for third most DUI arrests, with 200 reported — despite being a dry county. Cullman also had the fifth most alcohol related offenses, with 101 reported.

Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper confirmed the findings of the 2004 report, and also noted the results of an informal survey of area police chiefs.

”The chiefs that I talked to said there had not been any appreciable difference before and after going wet,” he said. “But, again, you have to taken it on a city-by-city and case-by-case basis to see what type of impact it will have.”

Harper noted legal sales in Athens didn’t make much of a difference as far as alcohol related offenses are concerned, because alcohol was still available in nearby communities.

“Even though we were dry before the referendum, we were surrounded by wet counties,” Harper said. “Madison County is wet, and Decatur, and Florence were all wet, plus Tennessee is wet — so we were surrounded, anyway. We had a fair bit of arrests to begin with, and they haven’t really increased. Alcohol related arrests actually went down initially, because we weren’t making alcohol possession arrests anymore.”

Cullman is in a similar — though not identical — geographical position. Though Cullman County is surrounded by six dry counties, five of those counties contain wet cities, where alcohol sales are legal. The wet city of Decatur, in Morgan County, is 31 miles from Cullman; the wet city of Arab, in Marshall County, is approximately 23 miles away; and the wet town of Warrior, in Jefferson County, is less than 27 miles away.

Cullman is one of only seven dry counties in Alabama without a wet city, out of 67 total counties in the state.

Allen argued the accessibility issue could create more negatives in Cullman than in Athens, as alcohol was slightly easier to obtain in Athens.

“The fact is that Athens already had greater access before going wet, so their numbers would likely not be as drastic as what happened in Cullman if we were to go wet,” he said. “When we honestly look at our surrounding, wet communities do we really want to trade their community for our community, and trade their way of life for our way of life? Alcohol is a gateway drug to more illicit drugs.”

Though comparisons can be useful, Cullman County Sheriff Tyler Roden said it is impossible to predict exactly how alcohol sales might change a specific community.

“I know each community is different,” he said. “I think alcohol sales in one community might not have the same result as they would in another community.”

* Editors Note: Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely did not return a message left seeking comment by deadline of this article.

* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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