Banning beepers for children becomes new focus in war on drugs


SAN FRANCISCO -- It is nobody's idea of a perfect solution, but Lela Smith has given up waiting for those kinds of answers.

She has lived through the federal war on drugs and seen no change. Limousines still pull up outside her home at the Westside Courts housing project here, ferrying drug dealers and their goods, and not long ago a 1-year-old was found with a package of cocaine in his diaper, hidden there by his parents. If Ms. Smith's life had a soundtrack, it would be the staccato of gunfire and the sharp beep-beep-beep of electronic beepers going off, the sounds of drug deals.

So when a city supervisor here proposed an ordinance that would make it a crime for anyone under age 18 to carry a beeper, Ms. Smith felt a flash of hope. "Those beepers are getting kids killed," she said. "They shouldn't have them."

The proposed measure has become a symbol of the desperation felt here, as in cities across the country, about how to address the insatiable destruction drug trafficking brings.

True to the mores of urban life, beepers have become both an indispensable tool in drug deals and a fashion accessory. Drug dealers beep their runners, who are often minors, to let them know police are coming or to transmit a telephone number for information about where to pick up or deliver drugs.

"These guys are young businessmen, and that's how they look at it -- businessmen walk around with a beeper," said Waymond Nichols, supervisor in a program to try to put public housing tenants to work.

Beepers became a focus of attention here in May when a 12-year-old in nearby Oakland, angry because his beeper had been shut off, shot and killed his beeper supplier, a man nicknamed Beeper Mike.

The 11-member Board of Supervisors was deadlocked on the ban last month 5-5, with one member out of town. It is scheduled to vote again Monday, when all members are expected to be present.

According to the proposal, children would be allowed to carry beepers if they had written consent from parents, a doctor or an employer. The penalty for violators would be confiscation, and confiscation with up to a $100 fine for a second offense.

NTC Police officers could stop a child with a beeper only if they felt the child intended to commit a crime. Selling a pager to a minor would be punishable by a fine of up to $500.

San Francisco has already banned beepers in schools, as have school authorities in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York and other cities.

The sponsor of the measure, Jim Gonzalez, admitted that it was "a very modest proposal" and that it would not stop drug #F dealing. "It's doing something as opposed to doing nothing," he said.

Opponents of the law, including the police chief and the American Civil Liberties Union, worry that far from solving problems, it would invite charges of police harassment and that the ban would be more heavily enforced in neighborhoods where blacks and Latinos live.

"We don't believe you go after crime by creating a profile, by saying someone involved in drugs carries a beeper," said Alan Schlosser, staff counsel for the ACLU here. "You could say that about certain cars and clothes."

And then there are those who have nothing to do with the drug trade but who are compelled to wear black beepers on belts or in pockets to fulfill their desire to look good.

Some people carry beepers that don't even work, said Rudy Alarcon, 19, who was watching a pickup basketball game in a park, his PageNet beeper silent in his pocket. They're fake, he said. "They look at 'em all the time, too; it's a trip."

Mr. Alarcon said that his mother pays $17 a month to lease his beeper so she can keep in touch with him. He finds having a beeper socially useful, and he gives his number to girls he meets.

"I tell them to page me," he said.

Outside the Valencia Gardens housing project, where drugs are sold any hour of the day, five young women sat on a brick wall, drinking root beer and talking about beepers. None of them felt that banning beepers would change anything.

"One way or another, they're going to sell the dope, with or without a beeper," said a 22-year-old who carries a beeper for her job as a hospital accounting clerk. "They need to start inventing jobs for teen-agers, that's what they need to do."

Ms. Smith, who cares for her 16-year-old godson Dearl, called the police on him recently because she believed that he was involved in drug deals. They took his beeper.

"He kind of wised up," she said.

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