City aids drug dealers through illegal phones

Crackdown needed: Unauthorized telephones abound at crime sites, but Baltimore inspectors close their eyes.

May 09, 1999

THE INTERSECTION of Monroe and Fayette streets is not just any busy crossroads. It is known around the world as a 24-hour, open-air drug market, thanks to "The Corner," the 1997 book by David Simon and Edward Burns that described a year of hopelessness and addiction in West Baltimore.

One would think all that publicity would have mobilized the Police Department and other city agencies to eradicate the drug market. Think again. Dealers and zombie-like addicts are as numerous as ever at that corner. Police are nowhere to be seen. The department seems unable -- or unwilling -- to deal with the problem; City Council members from the Sixth District, all of whom are seeking re-election, are similarly impotent.

As if this inertia were not enough, the city has actually been aiding drug dealers in their nefarious activities.

Consider this:

As of Friday, there were six pay phones at Monroe and Fayette. All of them had been placed there unlawfully. Yet, despite repeated neighborhood complaints, the city had done nothing to remove them.

The Department of Public Works said those illegal phones are going to be removed. Not because inspectors were doing their jobs but because the Community Law Center is pressing the issue.

"How the city can allow this situation, I just cannot imagine," says Kristine Dunkerton, an attorney with the nonprofit legal group. "Even in the past month, another illegal pay phone was added to the corner."

Companies installing pay phones are required to have several city approvals, including a minor privilege permit and authorization to make necessary electrical connections. Permits have been granted for only 626 pay phones in Baltimore. Another 1,000 are believed to exist unlawfully, many in high-crime areas.

At Monroe and Fayette, independent telephone companies simply struck a deal with property owners who permitted the installations. One carry-out store has three pay phones on its wall -- all unauthorized by the city. Another four telephones are just a block away.

Residents say drug dealers stand by the six Monroe and Fayette pay phones for hours. Sometimes they answer the phones. Other times, they let them ring a seeming code -- two short rings and a one long, for instance -- that signals a location where a drug delivery is expected.

Repeated efforts by the Fayette Street Outreach Organization to have the unlawful phones removed produced no satisfaction, even though 1,412 calls by citizens summoned police to the corner last year. The Department of Public Works promised action only after the Community Law Center became involved.

In editorials over the past three months, The Sun has crusaded for aggressive measures to Baltimore's homicide rate, one of the nation's highest. In a city where one out of eight adults is believed to be a heroin or cocaine addict, the drug trade is directly linked to fatal and nonfatal shootings.

Something is fundamentally wrong when police, despite all the attention given "The Corner," continue to tolerate this notorious open-air drug market. Equally incomprehensible is the failure of the Department of Public Works to enforce city regulations on pay phones, especially when its officials know that the illegal phones aid drug dealers in doing business. No wonder many citizens have become cynical about City Hall's commitment to law and order.

With campaigns for mayor and City Council about to start, Baltimoreans should increase the pressure on the Schmoke administration to take action against crime. If it is incapable of achieving glory, then let it go out of office in shame.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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