COLUMN ONE : Ma Bell Hangs Up on Dealers : Pay telephones are being removed or altered in effort to slow drug trade. Opponents say the practice punishes law-abiding residents in high-crime areas.


Phoebe Nora’s blood would boil when she used to watch the man in the sleeveless jacket work the pay telephone around the corner from her Crenshaw District home.

The routine was always the same. He would make and take a few phone calls, then slip away. When the man returned, his pockets were stuffed with drugs and the sidewalk was buzzing with customers.

“It had gotten terrible,” said Nora, a determined great-grandmother who would spy on the man from her car. “He kept calling and getting more pickups. He had a wad of money that was big enough to choke a horse on.”

Thanks to Nora and her neighbors, the man is now gone. Not incidentally, so is the pay telephone.


Residents in drug-plagued neighborhoods from New York City to San Diego are enlisting Ma Bell as a trenchant ally in their struggles to disconnect drug dealers who use pay phones to market their merchandise.

Authorities say many dealers prefer the curbside phones to cellular or home versions because they remain anonymous and calls are difficult to trace. The dealers, they say, essentially are using public phones as business offices. They receive phone calls from customers and call their suppliers to arrange deliveries of drugs.

At the insistence of neighborhood groups, police and an occasional politician, telephone companies have removed pay phones from troubled communities or have altered them so that they cannot receive incoming calls. In rare instances, they have even taken a technological step backward by replacing push-button dials with rotary ones to make it more difficult for dealers to use pagers activated by touch-tone signals.

“If it is necessary, we will do it,” said Michael Breda of U.S. West Communications, which recently converted 18 push-button pay phones in St. Paul, Minn., to rotary dials. “We want to do anything we possibly can to curb drug trafficking.”

Although telephone company officials estimate only a small fraction of the nation’s 2 million pay phones have been affected by the changes, some community leaders and law enforcement agencies say the restrictions are becoming an increasingly attractive weapon in the block-by-block assault on drug dealing.

“It has been a great tool,” said Sonja Richter, who organizes neighborhood crime watch groups in Seattle, where about 10% of pay phones have been limited to outgoing calls to prevent customers from calling dealers. “The dealers on the street are the lower-end ones, and they cause the greatest damage in the neighborhood. Psychologically, doing something about the phones makes people feel they have empowered themselves.”

In Oakland, where an estimated 100 pay phones have been removed or altered over the past three years, police said frustrated residents have vandalized other phones in neighborhoods where they believed telephone companies were not responding quickly enough to complaints. In at least one case, drug dealers retaliated by destroying a pay phone that had been used heavily by residents, police said.

“When you are talking about neighborhood issues, you are talking about things like stop signs, why people congregate in certain areas and things like that,” said Oakland police Sgt. Bob Crawford. “Phones are all part of that.”

Next week a Los Angeles City Council committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on a proposed ordinance to prohibit pay phones in areas of Los Angeles where police believe their removal “would provide an overall benefit to the public by reducing the incidence of crime.” Another proposal would keep the pay phones but eliminate incoming calls.

“It is time to bring some order to our neighborhoods,” said Councilman Nate Holden, author of the proposal to remove the phones. “These telephones have become a real nuisance. Some of them are being used 99% of the time for drug dealing and nothing else.”

Telephone company officials say they have done their best to cooperate with neighborhood groups, but many are not convinced that removing or altering pay phones is the solution to curbside drug dealing. In some cases, they say, telephone companies are being unfairly singled out by residents desperate for easy answers to deeply rooted neighborhood crime problems.

“We recognize it certainly can be a problem, but there is an element here of killing the messenger who brings the bad news,” said Thomas Keane, president of the California Payphone Assn., whose members own most of the 30,000 private pay phones that have popped up statewide since regulators opened the pay phone business to competition five years ago.

“This issue was a little pebble on top of the hill a year ago, and it is now a half-blown avalanche,” Keane said. “We are worried that we will get caught in, ‘Let’s run the pay phones off this block, and next month let’s run them off another block.’ ”

In Washington, officials from Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone, the city’s largest pay phone operator, have tried to persuade community groups that pay phones need not be removed to address complaints about drug dealing. The company recommends that phones be restricted to outgoing calls.

A company spokesman said the strategy has been motivated in part by economics. C&P; removed 37 pay phones in 1988 in various Washington neighborhoods that had generated more than $120,000 a year in revenue for the company. By contrast, the company does not make money at pay phones on incoming calls, so it did not lose revenue by restricting an additional 113 phones that same year to outgoing calls.

“We strongly prefer not to just take the phones out,” said C&P; spokesman Michel Daley. “They are a significant form of revenue. . . . Also, pay phones are put in to meet a public need, and that is really to help people out, particularly in an emergency, anything from a flat tire to someone having a heart attack.”

Paul Hirsch, spokesman for Pacific Bell, which operates 120,000 of the 200,000 pay phones in California, said the telephone company has blocked incoming calls on about 1,000 phones statewide. But he characterized the modification as a “disservice to the people in the community” who depend on phones for legitimate purposes.

“We have gotten complaints from the community asking, ‘Why are you shutting us out?’ ” Hirsch said. “There seems to be a connection between where telephones are used by pimps and drug pushers and where telephones are used by people who might not have access to a private telephone.”

Hirsch and officials from other telephone companies complain that there is no evidence that removing or altering pay phones actually reduces drug sales. In fact, Hirsch said, an informal polling of law enforcement agencies by Pacific Bell revealed that the changes to the pay phones have had little impact. At best, officials from several companies said, the restrictions have merely shifted crime problems to different neighborhoods.

“This isn’t addressing the issue,” said Patrick Doherty, customer service manager for GTE California.

Police from Seattle to New York said it is virtually impossible to quantify the effect of pay phone restrictions on crime, but they agreed it is highly unlikely that overall drug sales have dropped significantly because of them. They said, however, that the restrictions have had a major effect on individual neighborhoods.

“It gives drug dealers one less thing to hide behind,” said Los Angeles Police Capt. Valentino Paniccia, who helped get about a dozen pay phones removed along Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima over the last year. “The total solution cannot be removing all of the phones in the world. But combined with other efforts, it can be very effective. Visible drug sales in this area are down 80% or 90%.”

In Long Beach, where police once estimated as many as three quarters of all drug deals were arranged on pay phones, beat officers have detected an immediate drop in crime in neighborhoods where pay phones have been removed or altered. In addition to the obvious reduction in drug sales, other crimes--such as assaults, robberies and car thefts--have dropped in those areas, officers said.

“The idea is just to make it tougher for them to street deal,” said Deputy Police Chief David Dusenbury.

Richter, the community organizer in Seattle, said neighborhood victories--even when they come at the expense of other neighborhoods--are important for communities that have grown weary fighting crime.

“It is a Band-Aid displacement kind of thing, but it relieves pressure,” Richter said. “If you have not been able to sleep at night because of all the cars coming by, you don’t care where they went. You just want to be able to sleep.”

In taking on the issue, Los Angeles joins a small but growing list of municipal governments looking for ways to support police and community groups.

The City Council hearing is expected to spur debate among council members, telephone company officials and police about the effectiveness of pay phone restrictions. Several council members already have expressed reservations, saying the restrictions would punish law-abiding residents in high-crime areas.

“The answer can’t always be take away the things that all the good people need because the bad people abuse them,” said Councilman Joel Wachs.

In Southern California, several other cities, including Inglewood, Compton, Hawthorne, Long Beach and San Diego, have launched trial programs in recent months aimed at ridding pay phones of drug dealers.

One of the earliest government efforts came in 1987, when state and city officials in New York City teamed to restrict incoming calls on phones in drug-infested areas of Manhattan.

In January, Sacramento enacted a far-reaching law that allows the city to declare troublesome pay phones as public nuisances. The city now can remove phones if other efforts to deter drug sales--such as increased lighting and blocked incoming calls--fail.

The Sacramento ordinance also addresses an increasingly sensitive issue among pay telephone companies by prohibiting competing vendors from replacing phones that have been removed. Pacific Bell and GTE, the largest pay telephone companies in California, have complained bitterly to authorities that their private competitors have installed new phones in drug-plagued areas where the two companies have cooperated with police.

“Any time we are asked to remove a phone, and then we investigate the matter later, it is common to find a privately owned pay telephone has followed ours,” said Hirsch of Pacific Bell.

In the northeast San Fernando Valley, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) intervened last year to help resolve problems between GTE and several private telephone companies that had installed phones at locations where GTE had removed phones at the request of police and community groups.

Katz said some of the private telephone companies “initially did not understand the seriousness” of the problem and have since agreed to cooperate. Los Angeles Councilman Ernani Bernardi, who represents the area, characterized the private telephone companies as “scavengers” and said they have impeded efforts to clean up portions of his district.

Keane, president of the California Payphone Assn., said his members are struggling to find ways to stay in business while addressing demands from the community. In Berkeley, his company, Pay-Tel Phone System, installed flood lights around one troublesome pay phone and even turned it off during late-night hours but police still insisted that it be removed, he said.

“In our business, the value of location is very, very important,” Keane said. “The best phone in the world is useless if it is in your warehouse.”

One answer to the problem, Keane said, may lie in technology. New pay phones installed by private vendors, he said, can be programmed to track calls so that detailed records--similar to consumer phone bills--can be compiled for police investigations. He said the technology could act as a deterrent by making pay phones less attractive to dealers concerned about leaving a trail for police.

Keane and others say that turning back the clock by converting push-button phones to rotary dials is not the answer. Not only can dealers bypass the dials with inexpensive converters, but the rotary dials prevent legitimate callers from having access to answering machines, voice mail and other touch-tone-activated telephone services, they say.

However, Margaret McCrary, president of the Mansfield-21st Street Block Club in Los Angeles, said residents in her neighborhood want the phones removed or restricted to 911 calls. McCrary and her neighbors fought several years ago to have pay phones removed from their neighborhood. The phones are back, she said, and so are the drugs.

“Nobody relies on these phones for their livelihood or business except the drug dealers,” said McCrary. “I have been in this neighborhood for 25 years. It is a nice neighborhood. We don’t want the phones here.”