Seeking Safety: Police chief, mayor tour city's rundown neighborhoods
Posted February 23, 2014
Fayetteville, N.C. — Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock stopped his patrol car outside Addie Wingate's home and listened to her story.
Wingate is 81, a spry sprig of a woman who returned to Massey Hill in 2004 after building a house on Progress Street, next to where she was born and raised.
For years, Wingate was happy with her decision to return to Massey Hill, a former mill village in southeastern Fayetteville. Then her neighbor across the street died and the neighbor's brother moved in.
Soon, the house across the street had broken windows, the front door torn from its hinges, the power and water cut off. On weekend nights, Wingate said, her new neighbor built a fire in his front yard. The two women who lived with him were troublemakers. The smell of marijuana drifted across the street along with noisy disturbances.
Fayetteville police were well aware of the problems. Records show they were called to the house more than 100 times last year, for everything from loud music to domestic disputes and serious assaults.
The police chief and the mayor went with a reporter on separate windshield tours of Massey Hill and some of the city's other blighted neighborhoods as part of "Seeking Safety," the Observer's yearlong search for solutions to Fayetteville's crime problems.
Medlock said he was aware of the problems he saw on the tour in early February - and that a big part of his plan to make the city better and safer is to help his officers deal with such problems more effectively.
Mayor Nat Robertson said he was ashamed of some of what he saw, and he wondered where the line should be drawn between government involvement and residents' responsibilities.
During his tour, Medlock pulled away from Wingate's home and noticed the large lot next door and other vacant lots that adjoin it. He wondered whether an investor could build some nice homes there.
That's what happened in one Charlotte neighborhood, and the development helped kick off a transformation, Medlock said. He spent his career in Charlotte before becoming Fayetteville's police chief a year ago.
A few blocks up the street, Medlock stopped near a barrel with burning boards and limbs. A ratty couch was pulled up close. It's a gathering spot for people - some of them homeless - to drink and keep warm.
Medlock got out of his car to talk to a man across the street from the fire. The man, Charles Jones, told the chief that he takes care of the vacant house where the barrel was burning. Medlock told Jones that the barrel could not be left in the public right of way, so Jones and another man dragged it into the yard of the home.
An officer Medlock summoned called Jones by name, which pleased the chief: He wants his officers to know the people in their precincts.
"My experience is this is what I have been doing all my career, riding these paths and back streets, talking to folks and making those connections," Medlock said.
He said blighted neighborhoods won't improve until the Police Department and the city have built relationships with the people who live in them.
He acknowledged his frustrations. Fayetteville's police force is understaffed compared with similarly sized cities: more than 60 percent of his officers' time is spent responding to calls for service, leaving little time for the type of "community policing" he believes will build rapport with residents. At a City Council retreat later in the week, Medlock would ask the council to approve hiring 68 more people for his department.
"I have got to have the time for my people to do this, to interact with property owners and residents," Medlock said during the tour.
At the next stop, in the Old Wilmington Road area bounded by Gillespie and Russell streets, Medlock was directed to a house where a large group gathers in the street out front nearly every day.
The property, on Nimocks Avenue, was such a mess that the landlord had been given notice to have it cleaned up or face fines.
"You know what the scary thing is?" the chief asked as he stopped outside the house. "Look at the kids' bicycles."
A mattress hung next to a fence in the lot next door, next to worn-out tires and a big pile of limbs. Across the street, in a city-owned lot, was a discarded toilet. A crumpled orange construction barrel was in another lot. Litter was everywhere.
As he left the neighborhood, Medlock pointed to a church.
"Churches are a piece that is critically important," he said. "The problem is the churches in the neighborhood are not attracting the people in the neighborhood."
Medlock next crossed Russell and Person streets to the B Street area, among the city's poorest neighborhoods.
He turned onto Link Street and noticed a house that had burned the month before, its shell left standing. A little farther, past mounds of trash along the curbs, he saw another abandoned house that had burned the same night.
He pointed to a third house where a couple of men were standing out front.
"They are selling dope out of that house," he said. "I know that."
He got out to inspect one of the burned houses. Trash was piled on the property; a river of litter clogged a ditch in the backyard.
"That's unacceptable," he said. "Let's clean it up, make it look good and maybe we can get some redevelopment in here."
He called in an officer, who agreed that the house needed to be secured and the trash removed.
Within hours, pictures were posted on SeeClickFix, an Internet tool the city is testing that allows residents to easily report problems. The next day, mounds of trash along Link Street had been hauled away, but litter remained.
A motel at the corner of Link Street and Eastern Boulevard caught fire a couple of days after Medlock's visit. During the tour, he wondered whether anything could be done to get the motel to clean up overgrowth and debris from the back of the property. He also wondered whether the motel could be declared a public nuisance.
Medlock said disorder in a neighborhood encourages crime. He is trying to get his officers to do a better job of reporting symptoms of blight to the city, which is responsible for dealing with many problems through its code enforcement, health and solid waste departments.
"We have to pay more attention to making those reports," Medlock said. "We become desensitized to it like everyone else does. It doesn't make it right; it doesn't excuse it. We have to become more concerned about dealing with the disorder."
Robertson, who was elected mayor in November, took the same tour the next day.
Before pulling up to Wingate's house, Robertson saw a large mound of tree limbs and litter next to the road, on city property. He was told that the pile had been there for quite some time.
"I'm ashamed of that," he said before writing down the address for city crews.
Throughout the tour, he criticized property owners, saying some of the neglect rests on their shoulders.
But he was critical of the city Inspections Department as well.
"The inspectors seem to be placing a lot of time on those who may be most likely to pay the fines rather than those who are not," he said.
Robertson said he is irritated by the large number of people who call him saying inspectors have cited them for minor infractions.
"Over at the mall, they'll write somebody a violation for having a light bulb out in a sign," he said. "I am going to go back to staff and see where their priorities are.
"For years we didn't enforce anything in the Inspections Department until somebody called and complained. Now, we have enough staff to be able to harass legitimate businesses, but they are neglecting the blighted areas, not even the blighted areas but some of the more mature housing neighborhoods."
The question of who is ultimately responsible for cleaning up the blight nags at Robertson.
"I guess another question is is this blight everywhere?" he asked. "And how do you make people take care of their own property?
"I am not saying any of this is right, and I'm not saying that I'd like to live next door to any of it, but there becomes a point to where your governments can only take care of you to a certain extent."
Chief Medlock took the tour on Feb. 4, Mayor Robertson on Feb. 5. Friday in Massey Hill, the pile of limbs and trash that Robertson said he was so ashamed of remained untouched on public property.
"I'm not happy," Robertson said. He said crews would be sent to the sitte immediately.
The burn barrel and the ratty couch had been moved to the other side of the street, in the vacant corner lot where the furniture crate once sat. A mattress lay next to the barrel, which remained in the public easement. The couch had fallen apart. Tires, beer bottles and tree limbs littered the lot.
In October, the house that had concerned Addie Wingate so much burned and was boarded up. Crime scene tape remained out front Friday. City inspectors had condemned the house in September, but the man continued to live there until a reporter told inspectors that he was there. The city's request to demolish the house is expected to go before the Environmental Court on Monday.
In the Old Wilmington Road neighborhood, it appears that some effort was made to clean up the property on Nimocks Avenue. But the mattress, construction barrel and toilet remained untouched. A large pile of trash and tree limbs sat in the lot next to the house.
On Link Street, it appeared that someone made an effort to secure the burned-out houses. At one, the porch roof was lowered to block the front entrance, but the sides of the house were unsecured. Someone boarded a side entrance at the other, but litter still covered the yard and lined the street.
Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 910-486-3525.