Saturday, June 22, 2013 12:26 AM
Police seek to curb Cook-Out shootings
Police, restaurant form partnership to address fights, gunfire on weekend nights
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
One of Wilson’s most popular teen hangouts is off-limits for James Johnson III’s children, and as long as the fights and gunfire continue, that’s not likely to change.
The Wilson city councilman said he’s become increasingly concerned about unruly crowds at Cook-Out, a fast-food restaurant at 2925 Raleigh Road Parkway West.
"I have two teenagers, and I won’t allow them to go there,” Johnson said. "When it’s dark and unless I’m with them and getting a milkshake, they’re not going to go.”
The eatery known for blended milkshakes and backyard grill-style hamburgers is a gathering place for teens and young adults on weekend nights. Wilson police have investigated two shootings at the restaurant in the past month, one on May 25 and one on June 15. No one was shot in the gun blasts.
Trouble at the Cook-Out isn’t a new phenomenon. Johnson, who serves as mayor pro-tem, first raised the issue at a September 2011 City Council meeting.
"I thought we had this licked last year,” Johnson said Friday. "I’m just at a loss. I hope with them working with the police department again, they can squash this.”
Police commanders say they met with Cook-Out’s district manager last week and discussed ways to prevent future fights and shootings. The restaurant has hired two off-duty Wilson police officers to provide security on weekend nights, and police are also planning more patrols in the area.
"The police department’s making specific preparations to address recent issues of shots fired,” Capt. Tad Shelton said. "We take any type of crime involving a weapon extremely seriously, and we want to address it before it becomes an issue — before someone’s hurt.”
83 POLICE CALLS
In a little more than a year, police have been called to Cook-Out 83 times. Wilson police provided a complete list of calls for service at the restaurant from June 1, 2012 to June 17, 2013.
"I would say that’s much higher than the average” for a similarly sized fast-food restaurant, Shelton said.
Three calls were for reports of shots fired, seven were for fights and police were called 20 times for a disturbance or disturbance of the peace, according to the data.
Officers investigated five reports of suspicious vehicles and four reports of a suspicious person — with one call from July 4, 2012, listed as a suspicious person with a weapon.
Not every call reflected a threat of violent crime. The 83 calls include nine crashes in the Cook-Out parking lot and eight officer-initiated traffic stops.
Cook-Out’s history of problems dates back at least as far as 2011. From January to early September of that year, police responded to roughly 70 calls at the restaurant.
Shelton said the fast-food flare-ups tend to increase during the high school football season in the fall, when students will congregate at the restaurant after leaving the games. The winter basketball season also has drawn crowds.
"This is a bit unexpected to have the issues we’ve had recently in the spring and early summer,” Shelton said. "We want to get on top of things early.”
Police say the cause may be a combination of the restaurant’s late hours and outdoor seating, which is more conducive to large crowds than an indoor dining room, and the business’s appeal to restless Wilson County teens.
"The youth have been looking for somewhere to hang out since forever — since I was a teenager,” Shelton said.
Johnson said most high-schoolers who gather at the Cook-Out probably aren’t looking for trouble. He said the crowds also consist of young men — "people coming in from out of town talking to the younger girls.”
POLICE SEEK PARTNERSHIP
Wilson police Capt. Mark Sullivan and Sgt. Luke Marcum met with Brian Thomas, Cook-Out’s district manager, last Monday. The restaurant chain arranged to hire two off-duty police officers to provide security at Cook-Out on Friday and Saturday nights.
Shelton said restaurant management has been receptive to police concerns and is working with the department to deter loitering and prevent future fights.
"Apparently, the manager is more than willing to adjust the hours of the off-duty as needed,” he said.
A manager at the Wilson restaurant referred questions to Cook-Out’s corporate headquarters in Thomasville. Executives there didn’t return phone calls seeking comment in time for this story. An employee said Thomas was on vacation Thursday and Friday.
Cook-Out is a privately owned fast-food chain with 100 restaurants in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Virginia. The company has no official website, but loyal patrons have created at least two fan sites listing menu items and locations.
Shelton said Cook-Out had previously hired off-duty police officers on a seasonal basis. In summer 2011, managers had an unarmed security guard from Fayetteville-based Templar Security stationed at the restaurant on weekend nights.
Sworn police officers have more authority to detain someone than security guards, but in some cases, cities and counties can still be held liable for officers’ conduct even if they’re performing off-duty security work for a private business.
"Off-duty police officers who either purport to exercise official authority or who exercise actual police authority may be acting under color of state law,” attorney David H. Peck wrote in an article for the Police Policy Studies Council.
Off-duty officers’ presence alone may deter disorderly behavior, Shelton said, and law-abiding customers are still welcome at the restaurant.
"We’re not trying to hinder the business itself — they provide a service to the community,” Shelton said. "But we certainly want to discourage those who want to come out there and cause trouble.”
Shelton said the police department is also working with the restaurant on crime prevention strategies.
"Cook-Out is considering other safety measures,” he said.
Johnson said he’s hopeful that Cook-Out’s partnership with police will make the restaurant a safer place to be.
"I believe the security and zero tolerance for any problems out there will pretty much take care of those problem hours,” he said.
But, Johnson added, he’s willing to research restrictions that city leaders could impose if fights and shootings at the restaurant continue.
"I can’t imagine we’re going to give them a long leash,” he said.
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