Nearly three years after a small majority of Bethel voters approved unlimited alcohol sales, a Channel 2 News investigation reveals that crime rates in the region have increased, especially in some of the 56 smaller villages nearby.
In October 2009 Bethel voters decided, 615 to 523, to change Bethel from a "damp" community to a "wet" one, removing the previous alcohol import limit of 10.5 ounces per person per month.
Perhaps because of the fact there are still no liquor stores or bars located in the Kuskokwim River’s main port city, population 6,080, there is a popular opinion among many Bethel residents that not much has changed.
Despite the change in law, Swanson's Grocery Store manager Carol Joaquine still locks up virtually every product containing alcohol, hidden behind the counter, in order to prevent theft. The local favorite? Listerine.
"26.9 percent (alcohol) in this right here -- most closely resembles regular whiskey," Joaquine says, referring to the popular mouthwash’s caramel color. "You don't want to see a customer take this out and drink it. It just doesn't feel good to see that."
Alcohol-infused pain runs deep in Bethel. For the last 20 years, Bethel barber Stan Corp has heard such stories as he cuts hair.
"The alcoholism of families and suicides and so forth," Corp said. "That's probably one of the more painful things, as far as I can tell."
Outside the local post office, one man who didn't want to give his name says alcohol used to exact an even steeper cost on the community.
"I was a teenager when they had a liquor store and bars," said one Bethel resident, "and people were freezing to death. And they were drowning regularly, all the time."
Bethel's alcohol stores and bars became history after local option laws were put into place more than three decades ago. In late 2009, state officials were intent on implementing further restrictions on imported alcohol -- new laws that residents found hard to swallow.
"People's basic rights infringed upon," Corp remembers upset customers arguing.
Corp thinks Bethel’s alcohol problem is neither better nor worse since the law was relaxed in 2009.
"About the same as it ever was," Corp said.
"I would have to say it's about the same," Joaquine agreed, speaking from behind her Swanson’s counter.
"I don't think it's changed at all," said another Bethel resident Channel 2 spoke with at the post office. "But I'm glad I can order what we want."
But Bethel Police Department crime statistics obtained by Channel 2 News tell another side to the story. Arrest numbers are up since the "damp" law took effect.
In comparing average arrest numbers for the four years before Bethel went wet with those compiled in the following year, figures show an increase in most offenses, including rape, robbery, and theft.Responding To More Calls
State troopers like drug and alcohol investigator Jerry Evan, who responds to crimes in villages outside of Bethel, contend their workload has increased following the law's change.
"That basically means there's a lot more business in the village, a lot more crimes being committed," Evan said.
The effect of the vote can be seen firsthand in the village of Kwethluk, a 25-minute boat ride upriver from Bethel.