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The consumption of alcohol, violence and licensed premises

There is a considerable body of research that has examined the relationship between the consumption of alcohol, licensed premises and crime (particularly violent crime). This research is valuable in informing the development and implementation of policing strategies to address alcohol-related problems in and around licensed premises, and in evaluating these strategies in terms of their consistency with good practice.

Alcohol and crime

The harm associated with the consumption of alcohol, particularly for young people, is an area of growing concern (MCDS 2006) and presents a challenge to all levels of government. Developing policies that attempt to influence drinking behaviour is notoriously difficult, largely because the consumption of alcohol is widely accepted as a significant part of Australian culture. A recent national survey found that one in five Australians drink at high-risk levels at least once a month (AIHW 2008). There is also a well-established drinking culture in Australia of ‘drinking to get drunk’ whereby the consumption of alcohol, frequently at excessive and harmful levels, is associated with many forms of entertainment and participation in social events (Alcohol Working Group 2009).

At the same time, there is considerable evidence of an association between the excessive consumption of alcohol and a range of social, health and economic harms (Collins & Lapsley 2008). Alcohol-attributed disease and injury accounts for a significant number of hospitalisations each year (Pascal, Chikritzhs & Jones 2009). Research has found that a significant proportion of assaults involve persons affected by alcohol, either as victims or offenders (Doherty & Roche 2003; Morgan & McAtamney 2009; Plant, Plant & Thornton 2002). Conservative estimates suggest that in 2004–05, the total cost attributable to alcohol-related crime in Australia was $1.7b (Collins & Lapsley 2008). This has a negative impact on community safety and public amenity, which extends well beyond those who have been directly involved in an incident of alcohol-related antisocial behaviour or harm (Nicholas 2006).

The relationship between alcohol and aggression

The relationship between alcohol and violence is a complex one. Research shows that heavy drinking and intoxication are associated with physical aggression (Plant, Plant & Thornton 2002; Wells & Graham 2003). However, the majority of people who drink alcohol do not become offenders or victims of violent crime and consuming alcohol does not necessarily act as a precursor to violent behaviour (Plant, Plant & Thornton 2002). Research suggests that the association between alcohol and aggression is the result of an interaction of a number of variables, including:

  • individual characteristics including age, gender, personality traits, predisposition to aggression, deviant attitudes and expectations of the drinker about the effects of alcohol and their behaviour while intoxicated;
  • the pharmacological effects of alcohol on the cognitive, affective or behavioural functioning of the drinker which can lead to increased risk-taking, reduced anxiety regarding possible sanctions for their behaviour, heightened emotionality, impulsive behaviour, ‘liquid courage’, a distorted interpretation of events and an inability to resolve incidents verbally;
  • effects of the drinking environment including situational factors such as crowding, permissiveness of violent behaviour, the management of licensed premises and the role and behaviour of venue staff (including managers and security); and
  • societal attitudes and values, including a culture of deliberately drinking to become intoxicated, and using alcohol as an excuse for behaviour not normally condoned and for holding individuals less responsible for their actions (Graham et al. 2006, 1998).

The relationship between alcohol and violence is therefore influenced by the interactive effects of alcohol with personal, environmental and cultural factors. The prevention of violence and aggression requires an understanding of these interacting processes and risk factors. It also requires developing strategies that are informed by the evidence base with respect to the most effective interventions to address these factors and customising these strategies to suit the specific circumstances of local communities (Graham & Homel 2008; NDRI 2007).

Licensed premises and alcohol-related violence

Licensed premises are popular venues for entertainment, the consumption of alcohol and an important location for socialising, particularly among young people (McIlwain & Homel 2009). However, these premises are also a high-risk setting for alcohol-related violence and injury, with a large number of assaults occurring in or within very close proximity to hotels and nightclubs (Fitzgerald, Mason & Borzycki 2010). Both patrons and staff of licensed premises are at a heightened risk of becoming involved in a violent incident by comparison with other locations (Graham & Homel 2008). Research demonstrates a strong correlation between liquor outlet density and the incidence of multiple forms of social disruption, including assault, injury and drink driving (Chikritzhs et al. 2007).

Further, research has shown that in any given area, a relatively small number of outlets can be responsible for a disproportionate level of alcohol-related harm (Donnelly & Briscoe 2005). There are a number of explanations for these findings. There is evidence that the characteristics of venue patrons, such as being young, male and drinking heavily, are associated with increased likelihood of violence. However, the strongest predictor of violence in licensed premises is the characteristics of the venue itself (Quigley, Leonard & Collins 2003). Premises that fail to discourage aggressive behaviour while exhibiting particular physical and social characteristics that are more conducive to aggressive behaviour (see Table 2), will more frequently attract patrons who are most likely to become involved in aggressive behaviour (Quigley, Leonard & Collins 2003).

Table 2 outlines the risk factors for licensed premises relating to the characteristics of patrons, the venue, social environment, staff behaviour and the wider environment. Addressing the range of factors associated with violence in and around licensed premises is critical to the development of effective interventions.

Regulating the supply of alcohol

Australian policy directed towards reducing the incidence of alcohol-related victimisation has been primarily concerned with regulatory responses that target licensed premises and liquor outlets (Loxley et al. 2005). The regulation of the sale and supply of alcohol through liquor licensing legislation in Australia is the responsibility of state and territory governments. Most jurisdictions, in recognition of the harms associated with the excessive consumption of alcohol, have introduced harm minimisation as a primary objective of their liquor licensing legislation (NDRI 2007). However, this has been balanced against the requirement for state and territory governments, in accordance with the National Competition Policy, to ensure there are no unfair restrictions on competition and pressure to promote a vibrant night-time economy (NDRI 2007).

This has had important implications in terms of the availability of alcohol. Like many other countries, there has been a general trend in Australia towards the liberalisation of liquor licensing legislation and deregulation of the sale of alcohol and growth in the night-time economy (Graham & Homel 2008). Availability theory hypothesises that, while people will continue to consume alcohol, decreasing the availability of alcohol will result in a decrease in the level of alcohol consumption and, in-turn, lead to a reduction in the harms associated with the excessive consumption of alcohol (Jones et al. 2009; NDRI 2007). State and territory liquor acts regulate the physical availability through restrictions on premise trading hours, restrictions on the number and types of outlets, responsible beverage service requirements and imposing controls over the management and operation of licensed premises (NDRI 2007). Many of these controls will be universal, while others may be specifically targeted at certain premises. The trend towards liberalisation has seen increases in the number of licensed premises, different types of premises, hours of availability, beverage types and special event licenses and special license conditions (Nicholas 2010).

There has been extensive research investigating the relationship between the availability of alcohol and social harms. An international review of studies investigating the impact of variations to trading hours concluded that extended late-night trading hours leads to increased consumption and related harms (Stockwell & Chikritzhs 2009). A recent evaluation of the impact of significant restrictions on the trading hours (among other conditions) of a number of problematic premises in the Newcastle central business district found a reduction in the number of assaults, with no evidence of displacement to other neighbourhoods or premises (Jones et al. 2009). Increasing the number of liquor outlets in a designated area has been found to increase the risk of multiple forms of social disruption, as well as impacting upon neighbourhood perceptions of crime and safety (Chikritzhs et al. 2007; Donnelly et al. 2006). Studies into the impact of mandatory responsible beverage service have produced mixed findings, but there is some evidence of a positive impact in terms of reducing availability and therefore associated harms (Stockwell 2001).

There is less research investigating the impact of legislative reform more broadly and the available evidence is mixed. For example, one study in New Zealand concluded that the liberalisation of alcohol, which included a reduction in the minimum age, may have resulted in an increase in consumption among young people and an associated increase in disorder offences and drink driving (Huckle, Pledger & Casswell 2006). By contrast, a recent evaluation of the Licensing Act 2003 in England and Wales, which abolished set trading hours for licensed premises, found little evidence of increased availability (few premises extended their hours), increased consumption or increased violence and disorder (Hough & Hunter 2008). This was despite significant initial concerns regarding its potential impact.

Importantly, research has shown that legislation or regulations prohibiting (for example) the service of alcohol to minors or requiring the responsible service of alcohol, with the threat of penalties for breaches, is not sufficient to encourage compliance. Licensed premises frequently breach licensing provisions relating to the service of alcohol to intoxicated patrons and the promotion of irresponsible drinking, and these licensed premises are responsible for a disproportionate amount of harm (Briscoe & Donnelly 2001; Trifonoff & Nicholas 2008). There is considerable evidence that the effectiveness of strategies that aim to restrict the sale and supply of alcohol, such as responsible beverage service programs, liquor accords, restrictions on the access to alcohol among young people and community prevention initiatives, is contingent upon the presence of a strong and reliable enforcement component (Trifonoff & Nicholas 2008; Loxley, Toumbourou & Stockwell 2004; NDRI 2007). Strict enforcement of extant legislation pertaining to the responsible service of alcohol and management of licensed premises has been shown to have some impact upon compliance with these policies (Grube & Nygaard 2005).

Policing licensed premises

Many of the problems that result from intoxication require some sort of action or response by police. Given that alcohol intoxication significantly contributes to the cost of law enforcement in Australia (Donnelly et al. 2007), it is not surprising that considerable attention has been given to the role of police in reducing the burden of alcohol-related problems both on the community and in terms of the demand for policing resources.

Policing strategies targeted at licensed premises and entertainment precincts generally take one of three forms:

  • front-line strategies;
  • monitoring, regulation and enforcement strategies; and
  • collaborative strategies (Doherty & Roche 2003; Fleming 2008).

Front-line strategies

Front-line strategies include the work of ‘general duties’ police officers patrolling areas where there is a high concentration of licensed premises. These officers frequently come into contact with both patrons and premise operators, and are responsible for (and spend a considerable amount of time) dealing with alcohol-related incidents, both in entertainment precincts and residential locations. There is little evidence to suggest that simply increasing the number of officers on patrol is effective as a crime prevention measure in and of itself. Instead, research has shown that directed patrols (ie how officers are deployed and what they do) is more important in determining whether the presence of police will help to prevent crime (Sherman & Eck 2006).

Monitoring, regulation and enforcement

Police are responsible for enforcing laws for regulating the supply of alcohol, often in partnership with licensing authorities (NDRI 2007; Spooner, McPherson & Hall 2004). Given the stringent regulations imposed upon licensees and operators of licensed premises to minimise the harms associated with these high-risk locations, the role of police in the enforcement of these regulations is considered particularly important. The assumption underlying the strict enforcement of liquor licensing laws is that it has the capacity to increase the perceived risks and costs associated with breaching legislative provisions governing the responsible service of alcohol and management of licensed premises, thereby deterring licensees and staff of licensed premises from breaching the legislation. The likely effectiveness of enforcement as a deterrent is dependent upon a number of factors:

  • the frequency of the enforcement activity, including whether it has been sustained or is an irregular or one-off occurrence;
  • the probability that breaches will be detected and penalised;
  • the immediacy of the response to breaches;
  • the severity of the penalty and whether it is commensurate to the scale and frequency of the breach(es); and
  • whether the activity has been widely publicised (Grube & Nygaard 2005; NDRI 2007).

The enforcement of state and territory liquor acts can involve both randomised and targeted strategies (Graham & Homel 2008). Randomised enforcement focuses on all or most licensed premises within a defined geographic area, using highly visible enforcement of liquor licensing legislation according to a random schedule. Targeted enforcement utilises intelligence collected by police to target problematic premises (Graham & Homel 2008). The fact that some premises are more problematic than others means that intelligence-led approaches to the policing of licensed premises and entertainment precincts are often recommended as the most effective mechanism for producing substantial reductions in alcohol-related problems (Nicholas 2010). Research into the impact of enforcement strategies, including but not limited to those directed at licensed premises, suggests that intelligence-led and targeted enforcement programs are more likely to be effective in dealing with the problems associated with alcohol-related violence in entertainment precincts (Graham & Homel 2008; McIlwain & Homel 2009; Sherman & Eck 2006).

Collaborative strategies

The range of strategies that may be implemented to address the problems associated with alcohol and licensed premises frequently require police to work with a range of stakeholders. Interagency collaboration is an increasingly important component of the role of police in addressing alcohol-related crime and recognises that police do not have sole responsibility for the prevention of alcohol-related crime (Doherty & Roche 2003). Police may be required to work in partnership with other government agencies, local government, regulatory authorities, premise management, peak bodies and the wider community to draw upon the range of skills, expertise, responsibilities and influence that these stakeholders possess.

The effectiveness of policing in reducing alcohol-related crime

Research examining the effectiveness of interventions focusing specifically on policing has shown that, when appropriately targeted, enforcement can be an effective approach to reducing violence in licensed premises (Haines & Graham 2005). Studies in Australia have demonstrated that a persistent and visible police presence in and around licensed premises has the capacity to reduce the level of alcohol-related crime and disorder in an area (Doherty & Roche 2003; McIlwain & Homel 2009). This has been supported by research in New Zealand (Sim, Morgan & Batchelor 2005), Sweden (Wallin & Andreasson 2005) and the United Kingdom (Jeffs & Saunders 1983; Maguire & Nettleton 2003). Other studies have been less supportive of this finding (Burns & Coumarelos 1993). However, many of these studies (with both positive and negative findings) have experienced methodological limitations, including short follow-up periods, the absence of reliable data to measure key outcomes, the absence of appropriate comparison areas to determine the relative effect size, extraneous factors such as other interventions being delivered at the same time and factors that have impacted upon the ability of police to implement the planned interventions (many of which are discussed below). Given the level of resources invested by police in policing licensed premises, there is a relative lack of high quality and independent evaluations into the effectiveness of the variety of approaches that have been adopted (Fleming 2008).

Drawing upon the available evidence base, Doherty and Roche (2003) have identified the following five key elements of a best practice approach to policing licensed premises:

  • a clear strategic direction for policing licensed premises and alcohol-related harms;
  • proactive policing of licensed venues, events and harms;
  • establishing intelligence gathering and analysis practices and systems that identify problematic licensed premises and assist with the evaluation of police responses;
  • collaboration with key local stakeholders to develop integrated responses to reduce alcohol-related incidents and harms; and
  • enforcing liquor and other legislation impacting on the management of licensed premises and behaviour of staff and patrons.

Barriers to implementing good practice

A number of factors have been found to impact upon the capacity of police to implement good practice in policing licensed premises. Some of the problems that have been encountered in implementing the more effective strategies include:

  • poor relationships between police and licensees, including a high degree of mistrust which can hamper efforts to engage the support of licensees in collaborative strategies (Macquire & Nettleton 2003);
  • low venue participation rates in voluntary programs that are based on a collaborative approach between licensees and police, such as accords (Stockwell et al. 1993);
  • a tendency to prioritise reactive policing strategies in entertainment precincts (ie normal police operations involving responding to and investigating offences and apprehending offenders), rather than proactive initiatives (Spooner, McPherson & Hall 2001).
  • scheduled visits to, or walkthroughs in, licensed premises conducted during peak periods frequently being interrupted by incidents that require an immediate police response;
  • poor coordination of the range of policing strategies that may be implemented to target problems within areas with a high concentration of premises (Burns & Coumarelos 1993; Homel et al. 1997; Sim, Morgan & Batchelor 2005);
  • different views between key stakeholders (police, licensing authorities, licensees) as to the factors contributing to alcohol-related problems and the most effective solutions;
  • inadequate data on alcohol-related offending, which inhibits effective targeting of problematic premises;
  • limited capacity to commit additional or redistribute existing resources to proactive or saturation-type strategies (Maguire & Nettleton. 2003; Molloy et al. 2004; Sim, Morgan & Batchelor 2005).

Research in New South Wales has demonstrated that police face difficulties in obtaining successful prosecutions for breaches of liquor laws and that where enforcement activity has taken place for breaches, the majority of this action has been initiated against patrons (Donnelly & Briscoe 2005). The problem of obtaining successful prosecutions has been experienced elsewhere, including in the United Kingdom (Maguire & Nettleton 2003). There are a number of reasons for this, including the problems associated with successfully proving a licensee’s culpability or complicity in an offence and the dilution of knowledge of liquor licensing legislation among police through the disbanding of dedicated liquor squads (Donnelly & Briscoe 2005; Fleming 2008; NDRI 2007).

Fleming (2008) suggested that there has been a recent shift in the focus of traditional enforcement efforts from the individual to the premise and the increasingly centralised focus of regulation through the establishment of dedicated liquor licensing teams. This is designed to consolidate knowledge and expertise within the organisation and to improve the effectiveness of police responses to reducing the harm associated with problematic licensed premises (Fleming 2008).

Areas for further research

Taken as a whole, the findings of these studies suggest that the regulation of the sale and supply of alcohol and enforcement by police has the capacity to reduce the levels of alcohol-related problems associated with licensed premises. However, there still exists both the need and the scope for additional evaluation of regulatory and enforcement activity within this area (Graham & Homel 2008).

While there is general agreement regarding the key elements of an effective policing strategy to address alcohol-related problems (Doherty & Roche 2003; Nicholas 2010), further research is required in the following areas:

  • the optimal amount of enforcement or proactive policing activity and the specific type of activity that has the greatest impact;
  • the relative effectiveness of randomised versus targeted enforcement strategies and whether there is an optimal balance between the two;
  • the impact of police enforcement over time, whether the positive effects that have been observed are sustainable and the degree to which enforcement efforts must be enhanced indefinitely;
  • the cost effectiveness of police enforcement in preventing violence in the licensed environment;
  • the capacity of policing strategies to influence other risk factors associated with alcohol-related violence beyond serving practices, including attitudes towards the consumption of alcohol and acceptable behaviour in and around licensed premises;
  • the capacity of law enforcement strategies to reduce population level harms; and
  • the extent to which the impact of policy and regulatory strategies such as changes in police enforcement practices is influenced by local conditions and the effectiveness of these practices across different areas, including regional centres (Briscoe & Donnelly 2005; Freisthler & Gruenewald 2005; Graham & Homel 2008; Stockwell et al. 2005).

A comprehensive approach to addressing alcohol-related problems in entertainment precincts

While the focus of this report is the role and effectiveness of police in addressing alcohol-related problems in and around licensed premises, it is important to consider the role of police as one part of a comprehensive approach to the management of entertainment precincts. Table 3 outlines the key components of a coordinated approach to addressing the harms associated with the consumption of alcohol in and around licensed premises.

Table 2: Risk factors for licensed premises
Patron characteristics Venue characteristics Social environment Staffing characteristics Wider environment

Heavily intoxicated

Greater proportion of males

Presence of males in groups, especially strangers to one another

Heavy drinkers

Younger patrons, including those who are underage

Greater proportion of unkempt patrons and patrons from marginal groups

Patrons exhibiting signs of being less agreeable, more impulsive and angry

Queues or line ups outside the building

Patrons hanging around outside venue at closing

Queues for public transport

Venues with larger capacity

Poorly maintained and unpleasant decor

Unclean or messy

Poor or low levels of lighting

Crowding that inhibits movement around the venue, including around the bar

Frequent patron movement

Higher noise level

Poor ventilation and high temperature

Inadequate or uncomfortable seating

Inconvenient access to the bar

Heavy drinking and high levels of intoxication

Generally permissive environment with high levels of rowdy behaviour

Expectation that aggression will be tolerated

Hostile atmosphere

Macho culture

Patron boredom

Underage drinking

Presence of competitive games


Sexual activity, contact and competition

Drink promotions

Limited availability of food

Other illegal activities, such as drug dealing

High proportion of male staff

Low staff-to-patron ratio

Lack of responsible serving practices

Refusing service to already intoxicated patrons

Drinking by staff

Greater number of staff adopting confrontational approach to venue management

Aggressive security staff

Poor coordination of staff

Poor monitoring and control of minor incidents

Limited ability to control or defuse situations

Lack of professionalism by security staff

Serving several drinks to patrons at closing

Younger security staff

High density of licensed premises

High levels of movement in and out of premises

Entry and ejection practices for aggressive patrons

Unfair or confrontational entry practices

Conflict between social groups emerging from or congregating around venues

Poor management of cluster points such as bus stations, taxi ranks, food outlets

Congestion points as crowds leave venues (especially at closing time)

Table 3: Key features of a comprehensive approach to the management of licensed premises
Key feature Description
Liquor licensing Legislation that is based upon principles of harm minimisation, contributes to the effective regulation of the sale and supply of alcohol and is supported by decision-making by licensing authorities that is considerate of the potential implications in terms of alcohol-related harms
Premise management Premises that serve alcohol comply with legislative requirements in terms of their management practices and are proactive in developing strategies to minimise the harm associated with alcohol
Training and education Licensed premise owners, managers, bar staff and security staff should be made aware of their legal obligations and of strategies that may assist them to deal with aggressive incidents and intoxicated individuals
Responsible service of alcohol All staff working at licensed premises should be provided with training regarding the responsible service of alcohol and required to comply with these provisions
Premise design The design and layout of licensed premises and their surrounding areas should minimise those risk factors that increase the likelihood of aggression or violent incidents
Responsible marketing Licensed premises, alcohol and the consumption of alcohol should be marketed in such a way so as to not promote the excessive consumption of alcohol and to encourage responsible drinking and behaviour among patrons
Communication strategies Licensed premises, police, regulatory authorities and other key stakeholders should be encouraged to communicate openly with one another regarding licensing issues, alcohol-related incidents and strategies to reduce the problems associated with alcohol
Community education and social marketing Effective and appropriately targeted education and social marketing strategies can help to attract clientele that are more likely to behave appropriately, encourage responsible drinking and patron behaviour, and enhance perceptions of safety and amenity in areas with a high concentration of licensed premises
Public transport The availability of a range of public transport options ensures that patrons are dispersed quickly and safely, particularly at peak closing times, and may help to discourage drink driving
Collaboration and interagency collaboration Collaborative strategies involving police, government agencies, local government, regulatory authorities, premise management, peak bodies and the wider community with clearly defined roles and clear lines of accountability
Enforcement Targeted enforcement of breaches of the liquor licensing legislation involving both police and regulatory authorities, formal action against patrons for alcohol-related offences and a visible police presence during peak periods for alcohol consumption

Source: Adapted from Doherty & Roche 2003

Last updated
3 November 2017