Venice Hangs Up on Drug Dealers

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to send a busy signal to drug dealers who have monopolized pay phones along Venice Beach, city officials have significantly reduced service to the area.

All but six of the 31 telephones along a one-mile stretch of touristy Ocean Front Walk were dismantled this week. Los Angeles police said the move should make it tougher for drug lords and other undesirables to reach out and touch their cohorts.

“It was a significant problem,” Capt. Jan Carlson said. “Some dealers tied up two to four phones at a time.”

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the Venice area, pressured the phone company to remove the phones after more than 100 residents signed a petition complaining that noisy and violent drug dealers were using them to make deals.


Several Choices

Galanter spokesman Rick Ruiz said the councilwoman met with police and General Telephone Co. representatives, considered several options and then decided that fewer phones would make for fewer lawbreakers in the area.

“I don’t think drug dealers want to stand in line to make their calls,” Ruiz said. “And with so few lines available, maybe they’ll go away.”

News of the phone removals cheered residents and merchants, who have complained about the drug dealers for months. James Hoyt, who works at an Ocean Front Walk art gallery, said the troublesome crowds have already started to disperse.


“You should see the looks on their faces,” Hoyt said. “It’s like, hey, where are the phones? There’s no place for anybody to hang out anymore.”

Hoyt said surly-looking people, some of them in gang garb, constantly congregated around the phones in the past. He occasionally found blood stains on the walls of his apartment building near the ocean, he said, and one of his neighbors became so outraged that he took an ax to the phones.

Although there are no statistics on the number of arrests made at telephone locations, Carlson said, police considered the Ocean Front Walk phones to be a significant magnet for crime, as they were often used by drug dealers from nearby areas like Venice’s troubled Oakwood neighborhood.

Area residents thought they had won their battle against the phones last month when GTE workers started dismantling the booths. But the workers returned days later with new phones.

Different Type of Phone

GTE officials said that work had been an effort to placate residents and police by installing phones that could be used only for outgoing calls. Carlson said that strategy proved unsuccessful, however, because many drug dealers carry beepers and do not need to receive calls to do business.

GTE operates the pay telephones along Ocean Front Walk under a profit-sharing agreement with the city. The city receives about 15% of the money collected.

Phone company officials said they do not keep track of the exact revenues from specific calling areas. Nor does the city.


But Duane Nightingale, a GTE district manager, said the company initially was reluctant to remove the phones because “it was one of our higher-paying areas.” GTE capitulated after it became clear that there were no other solutions and “we wanted to be good citizens,” he said.

Nightingale said he foresees only one possible problem. The thousands of tourists who descend on Venice Beach on summer days may find it extremely difficult to find a phone.

“It’s certainly going to cause some difficulties for people trying to make calls,” he said. “People are going to want telephones and they’re not going to be there.”