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Study: Casinos increase crime

Staff Writer

(Originally published June 6, 2006.)

Casinos raise the level of serious crime in a community over time, despite casino revenues spent on additional police, according to a new study.

In the lead-up to the March 2004 Proposition X vote in Hesperia on the proposed Timbisha-Shoshone casino, the exact opposite was argued by supporters of the casino: The casino would generate revenues for the city that would provide Hesperia with much-needed additional police.

The study, "Casinos, Crime and Community Costs," looked at all 3,165 counties in the United States from 1977 to 1996. Its conclusion: Five years after a casino opens, serious crime in the area goes up dramatically when compared to neighboring areas, even after adjusting for economic trends and other factors.

According to the study, five years after a casino opens, robbery in the community goes up 136 percent, aggravated assault is up 91 percent, auto theft is up 78 percent, burglary is up 50 percent, larceny is up 38 percent, rape is up 21 percent and murder is up 12 percent, compared to neighboring communities.

Crime-lowering effects, like additional police and the new jobs represented by a casino are overwhelmed by rising crime increased by the presence of the casino, according to the study.

Professor David B. Mustard of the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia conducted the study with Baylor University Professor Earl Grinols.

"When these casinos open, often there was an increase in the number of police officers," Mustard said Friday. "Typically that happened when the casino opened, but it didn't go off into the future."

In other words, local officials normally do not continue to increase police staffing levels after the initial increases paid for with casino-related revenue.

"The crime suppression effects of a casino happen in the first year or so, the first year or two."

Previous studies had two major flaws, according to Mustard and Grinols: They either looked at too small of an area, or they did not correct for other factors, such as how the economy was doing independently of the opening of a casino.

"It just so happened that the casino boom was in the 1990s, but it also happens that crime peaked in 1991 and has been going down, and casinos have been going in since 1991."

Initially, though, the argument that casino revenues can lower local crime rates is correct, and the problem doesn't become apparent for a few years.

"The total effect is sort of flat over the beginning and grows over time," Mustard said. Exactly how bad it will get is hard to know, as the study only runs over five years, but the researchers did see at least partial data for subsequent years. "If anything, when we cut it off, it seemed to go up even more in years six and seven. ... By cutting it off at year five, we're probably undercutting [the rising crime rate] a bit."

Although not the focus of the study, the data also suggests that neighboring communities also see a rise in crime when a casino moves in next door. After the fourth or fifth year, all of the major crimes that increased in casino communities except murder had also risen by a statistically significant amount.

There was also no statistically significant decrease in crime in neighboring areas when a casino opened, suggesting the increase in crime in a casino area was not a matter of shifting criminal activity to the area, but instead that the casino created "new" crime instead.

Councilman Jim Lindley was one of three council members who voted in August 2003 to ratify a Municipal Services Agreement between the tribe and the developer that spelled out what the tribe would give to the city in return for their support. The city government has few, if any, legal means to prevent a casino from coming to the area, but both the state and federal governments take community response to a casino proposal into consideration when deciding whether or not to allow one to be built.

'ADDS FUEL TO THE CONTROVERSY'

"This just adds some more fuel to the controversy, obviously," Lindley said Friday. "It's been three years and nothing that either the tribe or the developer has presented to the city has happened. So, I am not opposed to taking another look at the casino. ... We should have had some sort of performance provision in the MSA, saying 'you need to break ground by X date,' and they haven't done it."

Residents who feel out of the loop as to what's happening with the proposed casino aren't alone: Lindley feels the same way. (The last official word on the casino was in May 2005, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger included Hesperia on a list of urbanized areas where he said he would not allow a casino to be built.)

"In terms of what's happening with the tribe, all I have is hearsay," he said. "I don't think they've made any progress since we tore the city apart voting on the MSA."

Time has not healed all wounds with Lindley, who said he would be open to changing the city council's official stance on a proposed casino.

"I would not be opposed to taking another look at the issue and going back to the citizens," he said. "The good thing about it is that it's not too late to do something about it, because the tribe hasn't done a thing."

What made economic sense in 2003 and 2004 makes less sense in 2006, with new businesses moving into Hesperia and more on the way, he said.

"The economics have changed, therefore the equation has changed in terms of whether or not we want a casino," said Lindley. "There's so much turmoil with the tribe and so much uncertainty with the developers that maybe it's not the right thing to do."

"I voted for the MSA [because], if they build it, I want the money," said Mayor Pro Tem Ed Pack. The MSA spells out what sort of revenue would be given the city of Hesperia once the casino is built. "The city does not vote to approve or disapprove on the casino."

City Council members had been told the casino would not bring more crime to the area than other major developments.

"The information we got: Jimmy Coronado [the captain of the Hesperia Station for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department], he talked to [police in Riverside County], which I think has more casinos than anybody," Pack said. "We were told, according to Jimmy—and he wasn't a big supporter of a casino—but the numbers he got from Riverside County was that the casino did not increase the crime in the areas where they were. They said that there was more crime near the shopping centers and the malls. ... It was like 8 to 1 with the mall [compared to] the casinos."

Dennis Nowicki was the mayor of Hesperia when the proposed casino first came to the public's attention in the summer of 2003 and was one of its most vocal supporters while in office. Friday, he would not comment on the new study without seeing it, but he had never previously had it "verifiably shown" that there was a statistical link between casinos and crime.

The study was news to Councilwoman Rita Vogler, but confirmed for her what she had previously felt about the proposed casino, she said. Vogler voted against the MSA in 2003.

"With gaming, it can be a fun and relaxing thing, but it can also be a terrible thing where they go in and take their rent check," Vogler said. "You only have to spend an afternoon at any one of the Indian casinos and you can see it.

"It's just not a good thing for Hesperia, that's the bottom line."

The full text of the study, Casinos, Crime and Community Costs, is available online at http://www.terry.uga.edu/%7Edmustard/casinos.pdf

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at beau@hesperiastar.com or by telephone at 956-7108.


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