Corner store crackdown has merit
The convenience store where I worked in high school prided itself on being a clean, family-friendly place.
Sure, we sold cigarettes, alcohol and lottery tickets, but our policies were extremely strict: We carded entire parties and only accepted New Hampshire and Vermont IDs. We also mopped our floors regularly, maintained a tidy coffee area and cleaned the bathrooms several times a day. Customers looking for dirty magazines or seeking to purchase beer using driver’s licenses from far-flung states such as Massachusetts and Maine were directed to the sketchy convenience store down the street.
“They’ll sell to you,” we would say.
In retrospect, we might have exaggerated the sins of the convenience store down the street. Nobody ever accused it of being a drug front, or a den of criminal activity. Nothing illegal ever happened there.
The same can’t be said of many of Schenectady’s corner stores.
At his state-of-the-city address in January, Mayor Gary McCarthy said that he plans to crack down on corner stores that engage in illegal activity and have a negative effect on neighborhood quality of life. These stores “foster an environment of drug activity, buy stolen merchandise, their accounting is creative at best and they clearly have a negative impact on our neighborhoods,” he said.
Last month, the mayor announced a follow-up proposal that would ban the sale of single cigarettes — sometimes called loosies or singles — at the city level. There are similar bans at the state and federal level, but officials say that a city ban would make for easier enforcement by city police. If approved, the law would give police another tool for tackling illegal activity at corner stores.
When I first heard about McCarthy’s initiative, I questioned whether illegal activity at corner stores is actually a big problem. Schenectady has a lot of challenges. Should cracking down on corner stores — and loosies — be a top priority?
But after learning a bit more, I’ve decided that a crackdown on bad corner stores could have a positive impact. In general, I think cities should take quality-of-life concerns more seriously, and an effort to address crime at small markets could go a long way. There are a lot of Capital Region corner stores I never set foot in, and it’s because they don’t look especially safe or pleasant.
Of course, I was more convinced of the initiative’s merit after McCarthy told me that the city’s 10 worst corner stores generated 3,400 police calls in a 24-month span. These calls were for “a little bit of everything,” he said. “Disorderly groups getting into fights. Fights that rise to the level of an assault. Shots fired.”
The loosie proposal has been criticized by some for being a waste of valuable police resources.
But McCarthy’s hope is that both the corner store crackdown — and, by extension, the loosie crackdown — will ultimately reduce
the volume of calls from the city’s most problematic corner stores and free police up for more important work. “We want police to do policing,” he said. “But we’ve got to get rid of the frivolous calls.”
The mayor has reason to be optimistic.
Last year the city cracked down on nine problem bars that generated about 1,000 police calls during a two-year period. Closing these troubled taverns rid the city of a major drain on police resources, and also saw the number of police calls from bars decrease overall, McCarthy said. He believes that going after the city’s worst convenience stores will lead to a similar citywide drop in police calls from corner stores.
Other upstate cities have targeted corner stores.
In December, Syracuse police accused clerks at seven small corner markets of buying and selling stolen merchandise such as baby formula, energy drinks, cigarettes and electronics. In 2012, the city of Rochester approved new zoning and municipal codes designed to curb criminal activity at corner stores.
I sometimes worry that quality-of-life initiatives unfairly target the poor.
But I’m not too concerned about the corner store initiative.
The city is rightly focused on the worst offenders, and understands that cracking down on bad corner stores will benefit residents, as well as law-abiding shopkeepers. Whether the initiative will lead to the larger-scale improvements McCarthy envisions remains to be seen. But I think it’s worth the effort.