Pulling the plug on city pay phones; Cutting their number could reduce crime, City Council hopes


Public pay phones -- the landline of choice for many drug dealers but the bane of residents who contend with the traffic the devices trigger -- might go the way of the billboard in Baltimore.

Officials, who passed a bill in March banning installation of billboards in the city, are considering limiting the number of pay phones and making it tougher for phone companies to receive permits.

City Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr. has proposed legislation that would require telephone companies to meet with residents, police, firefighters and elected officials before officials decide whether to grant permit requests.

Handy, pastor of Unity United Methodist Church in West Baltimore, said he realizes that reducing the number of pay phones won't end the city's drug problems, but he thinks it would be a step in the right direction.

"Not only did the complaints of citizens generate this bill, but I've seen where the large number of pay telephones are located, and the larger number of them, where you see four and five phones on one corner, tend to be where there is illegal drug traffic in East and West Baltimore," Handy said.

"The phones tend to be located where there are liquor stores. And I would wager that the majority of those phones were illegally placed. The interesting thing is that the legitimate phone companies are now beginning to co-locate their phones, placing them where the illegal phones have been placed, and the simple motive is profit."

Handy said the council probably won't vote on the issue until fall, but it appears to have unanimous support among his colleagues and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

More than 450 pay phones have been removed citywide since November, when elected officials, prodded by residents' complaints, began identifying phones installed on public rights-of-way without proper permits.

Plans call for more phones to be removed as officials decide which are unnecessary, said city Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher.

Although some smaller companies balk at the proposed restrictions, Tony Lewis, director of sales for Bell Atlantic Public Communications, said his company favors more scrutiny over outdoor telephones.

"Bell Atlantic has taken major steps to work very closely with the city in an effort to ensure that pay telephones are available to those who need them," Lewis said.

In a city where many homes do not have phones and many residents rely on public pay phones, Lewis said he knows that some phones are used for illegal activity.

Bell Atlantic has tried to minimize that by installing phones that block incoming calls and those that cut off at certain times of the day or night.

Also, he said, Bell Atlantic officials have installed lighting at certain phones to enable police to witness illicit activity. And when necessary, he said, the company has removed phones where "we have agreed with the police that illicit activity has taken place."

Officials at Tampa-based Davel Communications, the country's largest independent telephone operator, said they are willing to cooperate but fear that Baltimore might be a little too zealous in its efforts.

Bruce Renard, senior vice president of Davel, which has had more than 50 of its phones removed, said Davel officials respect the concerns expressed about crime in proximity to pay telephones, but added, "Good citizens use pay phones, travelers use pay phones and persons who have car problems use pay phones.

"Therefore, rather than simply seeking to remove phones from the public right-of-way the city and the citizens should work cooperatively with the pay phone industry to ensure an adequate number of safe and reliable public pay telephones for the citizenry."

Handy said he understands the phone companies' position, but added that residents' welfare is the city's main concern.

That's good news to Henri Thompson, 56, of Park Heights. He works as a community organizer for Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

"The residents in Park Heights consider the phones a nuisance and are afraid to use them," Thompson said. "Even if they didn't have a telephone at home, who would want to walk down the street to use a phone where a bunch of young people [are] hanging around with pit bulls? I'm not trying to stereotype every young person, but nine times out of 10, when there's a congregation of young adults around a pay telephone, there's usually some illegal activity going on."

Thompson has closely monitored the situation since city leaders began removing phones last year. He said several were re-installed after workers removed them.

Kocher acknowledges that problem: "There is some difficulty in this, in that they do go back up again."

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