Situational factors in the relationship between violence and the public use of alcohol

Criminology Research Council grant ; (42/88)

The products of this research, comprising various papers and journal articles, have been bound in one volume under the project's title.

The purpose of this research was to document the nature of the "apparent statistical association" between alcohol use and violence through an examination of police incident reports and police recording practices; and to explore, through detailed observations of clubs, pubs, and discos, ways in which the association between alcohol consumption and violence may be produced in the specific context of public drinking locations.

Observers visited 17 establishments in Sydney during 1989, making a total of 55 visits to 23 separate sites in the 17 establishments with a total observation time in excess of 300 hours. The licensed premises selected for study included some with a longstanding reputation for violence, as well as some with a reputation for handling violence in an effective way. The method used was qualitative and relatively unstructured, but was focused around features of the management of the establishment and the physical and social environment. The key question was: What aspects of management, security staff, the patrons, or the drinking environment tend to promote or to prevent the occurrence of violence?

It was found that there is a substantial link between public drinking and publicly occurring violence. This link is possibly far greater than previously thought by researchers, especially in certain types of drinking locations. The majority of incidents of violence occurring in and around drinking establishments are not reported or recorded, and so official crime statistics understate the true incidence of such offences.

Assaults taking place in and around drinking establishments are probably less likely to be officially recorded by police because it is often difficult to identify a victim. It seems likely that the majority of assaults occurring in public places in NSW (and elsewhere) are alcohol-related. Much unreported violence derives from specific premises that are "regularly violent". There are at least several dozen such venues in the Sydney area and many have been regularly violent for years. 30 assaults were observed during the observational study. Police were called to three of these and took action in only one case.

The majority of victims are "legitimate" victims. Despite common beliefs about pub "brawls", most attacks observed were not victim-precipitated. Attacks were usually directed at male victims who were disadvantaged by their drunkenness, youth, small size, or lack of companions. Most victims do not report attacks.

Contributing to the generation of violence in these premises are environmental factors such as: boring atmosphere; lack of comfort - loud music, crowding, limited seating, lack of ventilation; high levels of drunkenness; unavailability of substantial food; and aggressive and unreasonable bouncers. One-quarter of assaults observed were unwarranted attacks by bouncers on patrons. The prominence of these factors suggests that licensees should no longer be able to argue that regular violence is caused solely by individual patrons, and is not a management responsibility.

Whatever the exact causal role of alcohol consumption in leading to violence, there is no doubt that violence is a regular occurrence in many public drinking establishments, and that the incidence of violence could be reduced by modifications to management practices and to the drinking environment. The liquor industry is aware of the problem, and is keen to work with researchers and health professionals to improve the quality of life for patrons of licensed premises.