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TN police chiefs stand by wine sales assertion

5:35 PM, Jan 11, 2013   |    comments
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By Josh Brown / The Tennessean

Tennessee law enforcement officials who claimed grocery and convenience stores do a poorer job of following alcohol laws than liquor stores couldn't back that up with statistics on Thursday.

More than 100 sheriffs and police chiefs across the state signed a petition expressing their concerns about a measure that would allow wine in grocery and convenience stores. Seventeen of them discussed those concerns with reporters on Wednesday. Two who signed the petition acknowledged later they based their assertions on anecdotal evidence.

"I can't give you an exact number or a percentage because I'm not that well-versed on it," said Belle Meade Police Chief Tim Eads.

"Our general feel as law enforcement officers has been - a high volume alcohol is regulated a little tighter. An 18- or a 19-year-old walks into a liquor store, they're going to cause immediate suspicion."

Eads said he doesn't have any liquor stores or convenience stores in his jurisdiction in Belle Meade but bases his observations on years working as an officer in Dickson County.

"It's easier to sneak out with a bottle of Mad Dog or a bottle of wine than a six-pack of beer," he said.

The media conference came as lawmakers looked ahead at issues expected to be debated in the legislative session. Previous measures to allow grocery and convenience stores to sell wine have had little success making it out of committees in recent sessions.

The media event was organized by Nashville-based Seigenthaler Public Relations, which represents the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association. A spokesman acknowledged the public relations firm helped gather law enforcement signatures for the petition.

Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said the measure to allow food stores to sell wine has been gaining momentum in recent years.

"Whether or not it's gained enough to pass the legislature is hard to tell," he said. "I think proponents of grocery store sales will probably help their cause with legislation that allows for local referendums on the issue. A local referendum will offer legislators some political cover and might help attract more votes in the legislature."

After The Tennessean's request for data, the head of the Tennessee Grocers & Convenience Store Association also called on the police group to produce evidence to back its claim.

"I didn't see any statistics that they provided that showed any correlation between sales at our stores and any detriment to alcohol-related issues," said Jarron Springer, president of the grocers group. "We respect those law enforcement officials but, again, didn't see any evidence."

He said his group supported a 2006 law that required convenience and grocery stores to check identification for beer sales.

A look at alcohol-related arrests found little correlation between selling wine in grocery stores and increased crime. In 2011, for example, Tennessee had approximately 835 arrests per 100,000 residents for drunken driving, drunkenness and liquor law violations. Georgia, South Carolina, West Virginia and Ohio posted a lower arrest rate per capita, while North Carolina and Virginia had a higher rate, according to FBI data.

Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork, who signed the petition, said convenience stores are often the biggest offenders of selling alcohol to people under 21.

According to data provided by the Jackson-Madison County Metro Narcotics Unit, that county's enforcement operations found, since 2009, 59 retailers have been cited for selling alcohol to underage people out of 258 retailers checked. The figures did not distinguish among outlets.

"The package stores - they tend to do a better job of policing themselves," he said. "They don't have near the turnover rate that you have in a lot of convenience stores. That's my opinion based on observation."

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