COLLEGE STATION — A study of Colorado gambling towns shows crime went up when the games moved in, but results must be interpreted very cautiously, a Texas A&M University researcher reports.
“These findings confirm results of gaming-crime relationships in other areas, but they are only the first step in finding out how crime and gambling are linked,” said Dr. Patricia Stokowski, assistant professor of recreation, park and tourism sciences at Texas A&M.
“Given the early stages of gaming development in the Colorado counties, it’s not yet clear what portion of crime increases can be attributed to more police patrols and vigilance in law enforcement, to increases in crime by gamblers or to other variables.”
One of the most interesting findings, however, is that while statistics show most categories of crime dropped in Colorado between 1989 and 1995, crime in the two gambling counties went up. Those counties are home to three new gambling sites — Black Hawk and Central City in Gilpin County and Cripple Creek in Teller County.
Colorado began considering legalized gambling in 1989 and approved it in 1990. In 1991, the first gaming establishments opened.
Stokowski, a University of Colorado at Boulder faculty member at the time, began studying the communities in detail during initial discussion of legalization. She has continued her work since joining the Texas A&M faculty in 1994 and has a book on the subject being published in mid-1996.
Findings of her crime study were first published in February in the Journal of Travel Research.
Total property crimes in Colorado, including larceny and theft, motor vehicle theft, and burglary, dropped in the period studied. Incidences of those crimes rose, however, in Gilpin and Teller counties, as did the number of incidents in one category of violent crime — aggravated assault. Aggravated assaults actually decreased during that period in Colorado as a whole.
Total arrests in the two gaming counties also increased after gaming, contrary to the pattern in the state as a whole.
A third major finding was that residential populations increased only marginally in gaming counties while tourist visits rose dramatically. The impact was that the actual statistical chance of anyone being a crime victim, whether resident or tourist, decreased.
“These data should be interpreted cautiously, especially because gaming counties are rural areas where even small increases in criminal activity can produce large percentage changes,” Stokowski said. “But it is clear that crime went up in those areas while it dropped throughout the state, which corresponds to findings of earlier studies in Atlantic City, New Jersey.”
The data Stokowski gathered challenge both the “economic boosterism” and “social disruption” hypotheses used by those who predict impacts of newly legalized gambling on communities. The first proposes that changes gambling brings to a community are primarily positive and tied to greater cash inflow. The latter predicts more crime, traffic, noise and other negative impacts.
“There are clearly costs associated with crime in the gaming boomtowns that have not, so far, been eradicated by economic gains from gambling,” Stokowski said. “Local perceptions of increased criminal activity also may lead to exaggerated community fear of conflict, or stimulate other crime.”
Exaggerated fears may lead tourists to avoid visiting places where reports and perceptions of crime are elevated, so the study’s findings are important for framing future research that can can help communities plan better for large-scale development such as casino expansion.
Stokowski said previous studies of other economic “boomtowns” in the West, such as energy centers, have shown that boomtown citizens demonstrate significantly higher fear of crime than residents in similar sized non-boom cities — even though crime rates were essentially the same.
“It’s the responsibility of local leaders to help prevent crime, but it’s also their responsibility to present a good and accurate image of their community to both tourists and residents,” Stokowski said. “Perceptions that a place is more stressful, dangerous and disorganized, even when overblown, potentially could be encouraged and confirmed by media and interest groups.”
The bottom line, Stokowski said, is that better planning can provide both better protection against crime and more accurate images of an area.
“The success of tourism development depends on how well promoters and communities live up to their promises of providing new kinds of recreational attractions for diverse customers,” she said.
Anything less contributes to negative community and industry images, loss of customers, magnification of problems and increases in fear among local residents, she said — but added that communities don’t have to suffer those consequences.
“More reasoned, data-based and objective evaluations of crime and gaming development are needed to ensure communities understand the possible outcomes of their choices,” she said. “This study provides a start, and with more work, we may be able to decrease or avoid the kinds of problems and polarization that gambling issues can bring on.”