Bill seeks to hamper phone drug deals

January 28, 1994|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

To make it tougher for drug dealers to operate, several City Council members want to eliminate push-button pay phones in Baltimore's drug-free zones.

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III says the idea behind the proposed legislation, which would require public phones in those areas to have rotary dials, is simple.

"Drug dealers use touch-tone phones to page people. You can't do that with rotary phones," said Mr. Bell, the lead sponsor of the bill, which was introduced Monday.

"It's not a panacea. It's just one more tool in our arsenal," the 4th District Democrat said.

The bill, which would apply to 55 zones citywide, is the council's latest attempt to limit open-air drug trafficking. Ironically, it comes just as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is questioning the effectiveness of the drug-free zones.

Another bill, sponsored principally by Council President Mary Pat Clarke, would make placing outdoor phones in urban renewal areas contingent on zoning board approval, a step that would ensure community input.

Bell Atlantic-Maryland spokesman Dave Pacholczyk said the company doesn't "want to make money off drug activities," but sees several problems with the proposed legislation.

"Our position is rotary dialing is old technology. We don't think it makes sense to step backwards," he said, adding that touch-tone technology is needed to use such services as job hot lines.

Mr. Pacholczyk said Bell Atlantic-Maryland has other ways to handle the problem, such as limiting a pay phone's hours of operation. Also, he noted, rotary phones can be modified by an inexpensive electronic device that fits over the mouthpiece and simulates touch-tone sounds.

Bell Atlantic has 1,400 pay phones in the city; there are another 2,800 customer-owned, coin-operated phones. It is unclear how many phones would be affected by the pending legislation.

According to Mr. Bell, the Baltimore bill is modeled on a voluntary program in New York City.

NYNEX, the phone company serving New York, has for years had a "small-scale, very selective" program of installing rotary phones, says spokesman Paul Davidson.

"We've been doing it for a number of years. We do it at the request of community groups and local police stations," he said. There are about 250 rotary outdoor phones in New York, out of a citywide total of some 50,000.

Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, a 2nd District Democrat and another sponsor of the Baltimore bill, hopes a technological, rather than a legislative, solution may be in the offing.

"If we could somehow block the use of phones for beepers, then we wouldn't have to resort to this," he said. "Sometimes it takes a bill to stir action."

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