Thursday, August 18, 2022

Surf City PD cracking down on crime near beach bars

After 170 dispatches to an area on North New River Drive, police chief asks for funds to install a portable camera

The 1700 block of N. New River Drive in Surf City has been prone to crime, with 170 police calls to the area in 2021. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

SURF CITY — On weekend nights in Surf City, flocks of late-night partygoers trudge home or back to nearby rentals. In roughly 4 square miles of land, Surf City’s population of approximately 4,000 full-time residents more than doubles during summer peak season.

The vibrant coastal community, bordering Topsail Island, is home to two local bars, which have become iconic to the area: Tortuga’s Nest and Trailer Bar — both located in the 1700 block of North New River Drive. 

The late-night crowds and loud music — often going until 2 a.m. — have been an ongoing strain on the Surf City Police Department. A bulk of its resources are often channeled into the bars’ one-block radius in response to citizen complaints, crime and other calls for service. 

In 2021 alone, SCPD was dispatched 170 times to the area. 

Police chief Phil Vorhees, appointed to the position in January, has been with the department for 15 years.

“There was a time those bars were completely out of control — fights and crazy stuff going on every single night,” he said. 

Over the last five years, he has witnessed three deaths involving intoxicated drivers. One individual drove into the canal and drowned. Another couple was hit by a drunk driver — their car flipped and they burned to death.

“There’s always going to be problems when 400-something people are in an environment consuming alcohol,” Vorhees said. “It’s how we respond to those problems and hold people responsible that alleviates the fear of crime in those areas.”

Of all the instances where police were called out to New River Drive last year, Vorhees said 61 crimes were reported. Twelve arrests were made for simple assault, and a handful of people were detained for alcohol-related charges. At least three suspects were charged for resisting a public official, and twice officers were assaulted.

Vorhees raised recent concerns to local officials during a March budget session when he requested the purchase of a $7,000 camera system. He told the council: “We’ve been having some issues in one of our areas that I believe all of you are aware of.”

He wants to install the portable camera in the quarter-mile area from North New River Drive to Canal Street, and from Broadway Street to Third Street.

“The idea is to hold people making trouble there accountable and hold business there — that may be violating North Carolina general statutes — accountable,” Vorhees said.

Boosting surveillance will add to other measures he has already put in place. Last year, Vorhees began positioning officers at the Friendly Mart, located between the two bars, to be easily called to service.

“We’re not the only ones who have challenges like this,” he added. “Any town, any city, even the unincorporated areas that have bars that are like nightclubs, are gonna have problems.”

The police department has worked closely with Trailer Bar and Tortuga’s employees on how to spot someone overly intoxicated, knowing when to not overserve and how to detect fake IDs to reduce underage consumption.

“That’s the goal,” he said. “Stop things before they happen.”

Trailer Bar recently implemented a new sound system to help keep noise levels within the town ordinance levels. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

‘Not everybody’s angels’

Angela and Bryce Crain have owned Tortuga’s Nest for five years. Up to 250 people visit per day in the offseason during the bar’s regular hours, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., according to the couple. That number rises to over 400, its maximum capacity indoors, during summer months.

The Crains said they welcome added surveillance from Surf City PD.

“In reality, it’s a good thing,” Angela Crain told Port City Daily. 

Despite employing five to 10 security guards per shift, the Crains have had to ban individuals from their establishment due to numerous fights — some evolving into multi-person battles.

On May 31, 2021, Tortuga’s was hosting a dwarf wrestling match and a patron was dared by his friends to jump into the ring and attack one of the contestants. He apparently put the person in a headlock and body slammed him. The offender was banned from Tortuga’s, even though the victim did not wish to press charges.

That same night, one of the bouncers reported “an all-out brawl” in the establishment that escalated into the parking lot. 

In July last year, as police responded to a sexual assault call at Tortuga’s Nest, “other officers on scene were busy handling a large fight in the parking lot,” reports show.

That same weekend, three Surf City officers were tending to a call regarding a psychiatric matter when they got word a fight erupted next door at Tortuga’s. While leaving that scene, they were called to another fight at First and Canal streets, the intersection behind Trailer Bar.

In the entire block, there have been three incidents of leaving the scene of an accident, six larcenies, three reported injuries to property, three reports of second-degree trespassing and a slew of other crimes.

In the fall, when police responded to a brawl at Tortuga’s, one recount states: “None of the victims in this report could positively identify their attackers due to the large amount of people fighting amidst the large affray.”

“I’m not going to say everyone is angels, but compared to the past, we don’t have issues,” Crain said. “In the summertime, it’s tourists. They’re down here to party, not to work, to enjoy themselves at the beach.”

To help mitigate crime, Vorhees said the extra patrol unit assigned to the area runs Thursday through Sunday during summer months from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., when a spike in police calls tends to occur. 

“We try to use an on-duty officer to fill the extra patrol, but when one is not available or during holiday weekends, we pay off-duty officers overtime to work this detail,” he said. “The effect on the budget is not significant, but it does pull resources away from the rest of the town.”

While the majority of issues arise late at night, law enforcement receives calls at all hours. There have been concerns of breaking and entering, as well as larceny, in Tortuga’s first-floor arcade. Machines have been pried open, inventory stolen and juveniles identified for trespassing. In most cases, Crain used his own surveillance to identify the subjects, and on more than one occasion, parents have been involved to offer reimbursement and avoid prosecution.

Two-hundred-and-fifty-four feet away, the local dive Trailer Bar — a name fitting for its design, a double-wide trailer with an extended outdoor deck — caters to a “more mature crowd,” according to general manager Ginger Boger.

With live music beginning on weekends at 7 p.m. outdoors, noise complaints have plagued the area. Last year, Surf City police received 31 noise complaints, 18 citizen complaints, nine calls for disturbance, seven ordinance violations and seven calls for suspicious activity in the block, including for nearby residential units.

Vorhees confirmed law enforcement has addressed noise issues — often due to dumping glass bottles into a dumpster late at night.

In response, Boger has outfitted Trailer Bar’s exterior walls with signs: “Please keep noise to a minimum. Please respect our neighbors.” She also recently installed an audio system that limits its decibel output.

“We have the sound system computerized to where it will only hit a certain volume,” Boger explained. “We’re taking measures to adapt to our surroundings and abide by the rules.”

A new noise ordinance went into effect in Surf City last year, more stringent than the previous. Now when a complaint is made, an officer measures the decibel level with a metered tool, so there is “no gray area,” Vorhees said. 

The noise limits vary for residential, commercial zones and “sensitive areas.” Allowable levels range from 55 to 80 decibels, depending on the time and day. New rules prohibit amplified noise beyond the origin property line past 11 p.m. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the maximum levels are allowed to be 10 decibels higher.

Even though Boger said “guests don’t tend to get out of line, so to speak,” law enforcement has been called to Trailer Bar on occasion. An August incident from last year shows a band member was sent to the emergency room for seven stitches after being hit with a beer bottle. 

A May 2021 police report shows a Trailer Bar employee was assaulted and threatened with a knife while trying to escort a patron off the property. The employee detained the suspect, whom he “cut off” for being intoxicated, until law enforcement arrived. The individual was then banned from the establishment.

Multiple reports show it was not the first time drunk customers were asked to leave for being too intoxicated, only to defend themselves with violent or combative behavior. On another occasion, an employee was kicked in the chest by a drunk female. That same female became irate and violent with law enforcement as well.

Surf City Police Department Chief Phil Vorhees requested a camera be installed this year in the New River Drive area. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

What’s being done

Vorhees confirmed police presence has started to combat issues, but he warns those coming to town: “They’re gonna know, ‘If I get out of line and I break the law, I’m going to be held accountable.’”

Adding an extra camera is the latest in Surf City Police Department’s approach to beef up enforcement. Already, there has been improved or added street lighting, police hosted training for business owners and servers on ABC-related laws, and instituted additional undercover operations. It is continuing collaboration with Alcohol Law Enforcement agents on combating underage consumption and overserving patrons.

Owners from both establishments have also offered footage from their personal surveillance systems to help solve traffic accidents in the vicinity, identify persons of interest and investigate potential crimes, Vorhees said.

“We do maintain relationships with the businesses, its employees and owners,” Vorhees confirmed. “Their camera systems have been used in the past, but are limited in scope … and have not always been reliable.”

He said last summer the police department deployed a temporary camera for a short time in the area, which helped solve a stolen vehicle case. The department did not have the resources at the time to make it permanent.

The portable camera system Vorhees requested to be purchased by the summer will be the second of its kind. There is currently one installed in the island side bridge traffic circle, which “has been a tremendous asset,” he said. 

The system is part of a technology-based policing initiative to be utilized in other areas of town as needed and for special events.

“There is still work to be done and issues to solve, and my team will continue to work with all stakeholders,” Vorhees said. “But I think the problems are getting better, not worse.”

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