Tilly: The safety myth

BY ZACH TILLY | JULY 01, 2013 5:00 AM

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As civil rights fade once again to the backs of our minds after a big week at the Supreme Court, let us pause to reflect upon the battle raging anew right here in Iowa City. Our little hamlet’s 19- and 20-year-olds (their pockets full of delicious, delicious money) and some city bar owners are once again fighting for their right to trade cash for booze after 10 p.m.

For the third time in six years, the ordinance barring folks under 21 from the bars at 10 p.m. may be put to a vote. The 21-ordinance passed and has been in effect since 2010.

At the center of the debate, as always, is the issue of safety. Proponents of the 21-ordinance insist that the law is necessary to maintain a peaceful and safe downtown environment free of underage drinking and the rambunctiousness that inevitably follows.

City Councilor Connie Champion told The Daily Iowan last week that the ordinance had reduced the number of party-seeking pilgrims that once filled Iowa City on the weekends by the thousands and had generally made downtown safer.

Mayor Matt Hayek told the DI that downtown had become more stable and, as a result of the 21-ordinance, the business community downtown is more diverse.

Full disclosure: I like the 21-ordinance. I think it’s a totally justifiable, common-sense law. But the constant invocation of safety as justification of the ordinance is a total red herring. Such rhetoric is an attempt to disguise the fact that the city just wants a less rowdy, more economically diverse downtown environment.

It’s not about safety; it’s about making money. And if you look at the data, you’ll find that downtown isn’t really any safer than it was three years ago, but it is considerably more business-friendly.

According to annual crime data from the Iowa City police, over the past three years, violent crime (defined by me as crime that directly victimizes another person) is virtually unchanged downtown.

Assault is down a little bit, but burglary is up. The incidence of theft, robbery, shoplifting, pickpocketing, swindling and aggravated assault is virtually unchanged.

You’re no safer today than you were in 2010. In fact, if there are fewer people downtown every weekend, as Champion suggests, there may now be more crime per capita than there was before.

Though you aren’t any safer downtown, businesses are. The incidence of vandalism downtown is down dramatically from 252 incidents in 2009 to 139 last year. This matches up well with anecdotal reports of a subdued downtown from local business owners.

But the 21-ordinance and the subsequent drop in vandalism aren’t responsible for increased economic diversity in Iowa City, as the city seems to imply.

Zoning regulations, for example, have made it virtually impossible to open new bars in downtown Iowa City, so the spaces left behind by the bars that didn’t survive the 21-ordinances were left to be filled by non-alcoholic enterprises.

Downtown is diversifying by design, not as a natural outgrowth of the alleged safety created by the 21-ordinance.

The lionization of 21-only represents everything wrong and irritating about this debate.

There’s too much blustering and moralizing over the 21-ordinance. The rhetoric is grandiose, but the reality isn’t. On one side, the city and some shop owners and local fogies want less rowdiness downtown; on the other side, underagers want fewer rules governing their drinking, and some of the people who make money selling drinks want to make more money selling drinks.

If we’re doomed to have this debate again, let’s be clear at least. This issue isn’t about safety and freedom; it’s about money and booze.

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