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City Council Panel Backs Crackdown on Pay Telephones

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an attempt to disconnect drug dealers who use public telephones to conduct business, a Los Angeles City Council committee recommended Monday that the council adopt a public phone policy that would address community concerns about pay phones.

The proposed policy, to be considered by the full council today, would allow the city to remove pay phones that neighbors and police say are monopolized by drug dealers, but only after giving telephone companies a chance to find other ways to resolve problems. The policy suggests that companies improve lighting near phones, suspend incoming calls, install locks and eliminate access to touch-tone-activated services, such as pagers.

“While very mindful of the fact there are some areas where the telephone is being used for illegal activity . . . we don’t want to do anything that would prohibit the availability of the telephone for legitimate reasons,” said Councilman Richard Alatorre, who heads the council’s Public Safety Committee, which reviewed the matter Monday.

The committee also recommended that the city launch a trial program at MacArthur Park, where residents and merchants have complained about 30 phones that have become curbside offices for drug dealers. Pacific Bell, the largest pay phone operator in the city, and several private pay phone companies would voluntarily alter the phones as part of the experiment, and the Police Department would evaluate the effectiveness of the changes after six months, officials said.

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“The action really picks up about 2 in the morning,” said Sam Brooks, who has lived near the park for 14 years and supports the pilot program. “It looks like a zoo sometimes. Saturday night a big white stretch limousine came down, and people ran up to the car. You could hear them asking, ‘Do you want drugs? Do you want a lady?’ ”

Brooks said the pay phones contribute to drug dealing in the area, one of the most crime-ridden in the city.

Alatorre and Councilman Hal Bernson supported the recommendations, but Councilman Nate Holden--who came up with the idea of a citywide pay phone policy last month--opposed them. Holden accused his colleagues of succumbing to telephone company lobbyists, who have opposed his proposal to remove all troublesome pay phones in high-crime areas.

“In those cases where the telephone companies have been cooperative, they are not cooperative any more,” Holden said. “In my view, they are sandbagging this, or attempting to do so. In doing so, they are supporting dope dealers.”

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Mary Lou Kohlenhoefer, head of pay phones for Pacific Bell, said the company is attempting to balance concerns about drug-dealing with the public need for curbside phones.

“I agree, there are some instances where we need to remove some telephones,” Kohlenhoefer said. “I would hate to be driving through that area at midnight, however, and have a flat tire and need to call to get some help.”

Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Lorne Kramer, who heads the department’s narcotics division, said police are also concerned about emergency access to public pay phones. He said the department supports the committee’s recommendations.


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