Recently, I walked into a family gathering and one of my cousins said to me, “Aren’t you upset that Terre Haute is going to get a casino? I know it is supposed to bring jobs, but it’s going to bring so much crime too.” If you haven’t heard, a referendum was passed to build a casino in Vigo County during the general election of November 2019. Since then, the Terre Haute Tribune-Star reported that Spectacle Entertainment filed an application for a license to build a casino (or a “Rocksino” as they are calling it) off of State Road 46 near Interstate 70. The Tribune-Star article stated that the application includes plans for over 1,000 games, four bars, four restaurants, and a walkway to the existing Homewood Suites. Did I mention one of those restaurants will be a Hard Rock Café? Since the casino will be just a few miles from my home and I will have to pass it each day to get to work, increased crime would certainly be of concern to me as a resident. But I’m also a professor who teaches criminology classes, so it’s unwise to ask me a question like this unless you want to get a very long and drawn out answer that references statistics and a variety of peer-reviewed journal articles. Here’s that long and drawn out answer.
Hot Spots and Concentrated Crime
Criminologists and police often use the term “hot spot” to refer to areas where crime tends to be concentrated. These areas may have higher rates of activities like drug use, prostitution, or public intoxication. Police often try to identify hot spots to determine which areas might need more resources and patrols, often based on calls for service in those areas. This concept is linked to a criminological theory called Routine Activities Theory, which was developed by two researchers named Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson. Essentially, Cohen and Felson said that certain crimes are more likely to happen when three factors are simultaneously present: a “suitable target” for victimization (this could be a person, a home, or a car); the lack of a “capable guardian,” such as an alarm system, security guards, police, or a person to protect the target; and “motivated offenders” which are people who are motivated to commit crimes. When these three factors are present together, crime is more likely to occur and develop hot spots according to the theory.
The fear with casinos, of course, is that they will bring these factors together and develop into crime-ridden areas. The reasoning is that customers bring money to casinos, they might let their guards down due to drinking or lack of awareness, and therefore motivated offenders might target the casinos. What’s important to note, however, is that hot spots can develop in lots of different places. Bars, motels, strip clubs, and even residential areas can become hot spots if the conditions are right.
Tourism and Crime
Historically, the academic research on whether or not casinos attract crime has come to mixed conclusions. A 2008 research article published by Emmanuel Barthe and B. Grant Stitt in the journal, Police Practice and Research, found that casino-related hot spots were very similar to other types of hot spots in the same city. This means that the casino-related hot spots didn’t pose more danger than other types of hot spots in the same area. The casino-related hot spots differed primarily in an increased number of reports of drunken behavior and theft, which the authors claimed could both be dealt with through publicizing safety practices in the casino. In other words, the researchers didn’t seem to believe that the casinos proposed a substantially higher risk of crime, beyond drunkenness and theft.
What complicates these studies is that there are a lot of factors that can affect whether or not crimes will be committed in the vicinity of a casino. For example, many areas that have casinos are tourist destinations, such as Reno or Las Vegas. In an article published in Crime & Delinquency in 2001, Jeremy Wilson asserted that generally there is a connection between crime and tourism. Therefore, casinos could increase crime rates in the same way that any tourist attraction would. However, Barthe and Stitt concluded in a different study, published in the Journal of Criminal Justice in 2007, that when crime rates around casinos were calculated, other researchers neglected to include the influx of tourists in their calculations. This threw off the crime rates and often made them appear much higher than they truly were. When considering the number of tourists to casinos in crime rate calculations, Barth and Sith concluded that the crime rates around casinos may be even lower than other areas.
Casinos and Neighborhood Crime
More recently in 2015, Lallen Johnson and Jerry Ratcliffe conducted a study of a neighborhood in Philadelphia after a new casino was opened in the area. Their research, which was published in the Security Journal, found that the casino did not significantly affect crime rates for “violent felonies, vehicle crime, drug crime, or residential burglary” in the neighborhood of the casino. They did find that vehicle crimes in the area surrounding the casino’s neighborhood increased, which may suggest that some crime simply moved out of the casino’s neighborhood into the surrounding area. However, the researchers also found that drug crimes and residential burglary in the area immediately surrounding the casino’s neighborhood decreased. This could potentially be due to the increased police patrols around the area.
To cut to the chase, the answer to my family member is, no, I’m not all that worried about increased crime in the area if the casino project is approved and completed. By and large, it seems that casinos are no more responsible for increased crime than any other tourist attraction. I certainly understand some of the other concerns that come with a casino, but at this point, it doesn’t seem that fear of significantly higher crime should be one of them. Besides, I hear the Hard Rock Café makes a mean club sandwich.
Jennifer Stevens is a Greencastle native and a DePauw University graduate, who later earned her PhD from Purdue.
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