To Address Root Causes of Crime, Ban Convenience Stores!

The statue of A.P. Hill removed from atop the Confederate general’s grave. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

Now that the City of Richmond has expunged the scourge of the Confederate memorials that were blighting the eyes of residents — the last statue, of General A.P. Hill, was removed yesterday — City Council finally can turn its attention to less pressing matters such as violent crime and failing schools.

After a string of shootings at the Carolina Express convenience store, Councilwoman Ellen Robertson has formulated a novel solution for fighting crime — eliminate the convenience stores.

According to WRIC, Roberston proposes to remove the ability of property owners to build convenience stores “by right,” or without a special permit, in certain commercial and residential zones. In designated “overlay districts,” merchants would need to secure city permission.

The idea apparently springs from the observation that some convenience stores become hangouts for disreputable elements. WRIC quotes JJ Minor, president of the Richmond NAACP: “Most convenience stores are doing what is right, but there are some who just won’t comply and they’re doing wrong by the neighborhood. There’s a lot of congregating and illegal drugs being sold at these convenience stores. Wherever there is a lot of congregating, you can see things before it happens.”

What kind of things? Things like an Oct. 27 incident at the Carolina Express when police found three men with gunshot wounds in the store’s parking lot. Two had life-threatening injuries. The previous August, four people were shot at or around the store.

Virginia ABC has revoked Carolina Express’ alcohol license, but WRIC says it is not clear how long the suspension will last. Minor says Robertson’s proposal could be part of a longer-term solution. “Will it solve everything? No. But it is a start, and we definitely need to put some prevention measures in place to address crime at stores.”

Let’s analyze this.

Some convenience stores become magnets for ne’er-do-wells who loiter, drink beer, sell and buy drugs, and on occasion shoot one another. Where does this activity take place? Inside the stores? In the one clue we have from the WRIC article, the three men who were shot were found in the parking lot. It is a reasonable supposition that the vast majority of the loitering, buying, selling, banter, arguments, and shootings take place outside the store itself. Indeed, much of the activity may spill out onto the sidewalk, into the street, or onto neighboring properties. (It’s not as if the unruly element is punctilious about observing property lines.) This observation leads to an obvious question: how is the proprietor supposed to enforce acceptable behavior outside his store?

Does the prevalence of illegal activity stem from the fact that some store proprietors enforce the law more aggressively than others? I would hazard a guess that it does not. If you are a small businessman concerned about the criminal element hanging around the store, you’re not going to personally interrupt a drug transaction from taking place in your parking lot at the risk of eating a knuckle sandwich or getting shot yourself. No, you call the police. The police, I would humbly suggest, are the proper enforcers of the law.

The reason some convenience stores become congregating spots for disreputable elements has little to do with the behavior of the store owners and everything to do with the social dynamics of the disreputable elements. It’s like restaurants or nightclubs going in and out of fashion. Hotspots tend to move around for seemingly random reasons.

Here’s the real nub. Even if you could explain after the fact why a particular store attracted a criminal element, there is no way to ascertain ahead of time in a zoning hearing whether a proposed store will be an oasis of civility or a hotbed of antisocial behavior. Upon what grounds would the Richmond Planning Commission deny a merchant a special use permit. On the suspicion that his store might become a magnet for undesirables?

Perhaps Councilwoman Robertson has something else in mind, such as allowing planners to attach special-use conditions such as not selling alcohol or lottery tickets. Or not installing games of chance. Such conditions could keep away the disreputable crowd — and make the store so unprofitable that no one would bother opening it.

There has to be a better way of addressing violent crime. Unfortunately, that probably would entail hiring more police, keeping violent criminals in prison longer, and pursuing policies that many would find objectionable.