by Jordan Green
Residents of impoverished east-central High Point are fed up with gunfire, loud yelling, music and traffic congestion from summer parties at three liquor houses. But complaints to the police seem to do little to curb the problem.
The aptly named Commerce Avenue links several of High Point’s largest showrooms controlled by industry heavyweight International Market Centers, including the behemoth International Home Furnishings Center, valued at $36.5 million.
Passing the courthouse and the jail as it moves eastward into the racially segregated, low-wealth, east-central section of the city, the avenue narrows and becomes more weathered and pocked with age. It abruptly ends after four blocks, and then picks up again on the other side of South College Drive. Here, about a mile east of the International Home Furnishings Center, in a squat cinderblock house valued at $12,900, residents and the police are battling a form of commerce less welcome than furniture.
The High Point Police Department has made 32 service calls to the house, located at 1302 E. Commerce Ave., since May 28, most of them based on complaints by residents who refuse to identify themselves for fear of retaliation, said Lt. Tracy Perry.
On June 13 the police received a noise complaint about the house. Neighbors reported that the whole street was filled with cars, loud music blasted from the house and people were yelling in the street. The responding officer reported seeing about 50 people outside, but based on the fact that no arrests were made, Lt. Perry surmised that the partiers scattered.
The scene repeated itself the next night, with police responding to complaints about cars lining both sides of the street — and potentially impeding fire and emergency vehicles on the narrow artery — and noise, at two different times in the early morning hours.
The next evening, at around 10:45 p.m., the police made a preemptive visit to the house.
“Our officer said, ‘We know what’s going on: You’re running a liquor house,’” Perry said. “‘We’re going to be out here monitoring you.’ The guy admitted he was going to have a party, but said, ‘It’s going to be smaller this time.’”
The complaints continued over the next two weekends, and on June 27, following two separate noise complaints about the house, the police responded to a call at 5:30 a.m. from a resident who couldn’t get out to go to work because of all the cars in the street.
The complaints don’t seem to put any damper on the parties, Perry said. A common refrain from residents to officers is: “They just keep coming back when the police leave.”
Around the block at 1205 Vernon Place, another property that has been subject to multiple complaints in the past two months, police responded to a call for shots fired on June 6.
Jerry Mingo, president of the area Burns Hill Neighborhood Association, was in his backyard using his digital camera when he heard a pow! His first thought was that someone from 1205 Vernon Place was trying to shoot him. He could not see the shooter, but he surmised later that the shot was fired at someone else.
Lt. Perry said people fled the scene when the shots were fired, but officers pursued and caught a suspect.
The most recent complaints occurred on Sunday night, when the neighbors called the police on the house, reporting that traffic was blocked because of cars parked on both sides of the street.
At 1408 Leonard Ave., another property identified by police and residents as a liquor house that happens to be only two blocks away from police headquarters, officers have been met with brazen defiance.
As part of the department’s focused deterrence approach of making special checks on “hot spots” or locations with an inordinately high number of service calls, Perry said an officer and a lieutenant conducted a “knock and talk” at the address.
“They denied selling drugs or alcohol and they thought they were being harassed,” Perry said. “They got agitated and started getting mad at the officers. They were warned about what could happen. They were not very happy about it.”
On July 9, an officer with the department’s alcohol beverage control unit charged someone at the house with drug possession, Perry said.
Mingo confirmed that residents and guests at the liquor houses sometimes react with hostility to officers responding to complaints.
“I was out there one night when the police responded,” Mingo said. “The crowd was trying to intimidate the officers. It pissed me off.
“They were speaking with loud voices, and one guy was advancing on the officers; he had his girlfriend holding him back,” he continued. “They were out there with cameras so they could have something to post on Facebook. It could have been a very volatile situation.”
Mingo also pointed to an incident on June 27 when a 46-year-old man crashed a 2002 Saturn into a house in his neighborhood, within a block each of two of the liquor houses. The man was charged with impaired driving and possession of less than a gram of marijuana.
“It’s very annoying,” Mingo said. “Some of these people [in the neighborhood] have to work. They have to hear this noise all night. I talked to one lady; she’s scared about a stray bullet or someone drunk leaving the house and hitting a kid — hitting anyone.”
Perry said a detective with the department’s alcoholic beverage control unit visited all three houses on July 9. Perry said the department’s tactics for cracking down on liquor houses can include developing information from inside sources that could lead to charges.
“We’ve done the knock and talks,” she said. “Now, you’ve got alcohol enforcement to let them know we’re serious. If you don’t take heed, there are ways detectives have of using folks who could get in and see what’s taking place.”
Perry also said the owners of the properties have received registered letters indicating that their tenants’ activities have become a concern to law enforcement. She said such formal notification is often the first step in a nuisance abatement action. A civil lawsuit, a nuisance abatement action would have to be initiated by the city attorney.
Perry said the city is likely a ways off from taking punitive action against the property owners.
“We’re usually talking about a lot more violent crime,” she said. “But if it were to continue, if the calls escalated, that would make it more of priority. I don’t think it’s gotten to that point yet.”
For Mingo, nuisance abatement can’t come soon enough.
“She doesn’t live there,” Mingo said. “That tees me off. We live there and we have to hear stuff every weekend. They say we have to gather evidence. If it was another neighborhood, it wouldn’t take that long.”
Mingo also wants to see the police conduct random checkpoints in the neighborhood to discourage people from coming from outside High Point and other parts of the city to patronize the liquor houses.
“If they could set up some license checkpoints, that could be a deterrent,” he said. “It could stop some of the business. A lot of these guys are paying the rent, but they don’t even live there.”
Chris Williams, who represents Ward 2 — which includes the properties — on High Point City Council, rode around the neighborhood with Mingo at night on July 6. With attention from City Hall and a relatively new city manager, Greg Demko, who seems serious about his job, Mingo is optimistic that the tide will begin to turn.
“Some things are going to start shaking, I’m hoping,” he said. “Most people in the neighborhood are afraid to say something, so me being the neighborhood association president, I guess I have to.”