Pirate phones thrive as city frets over law

Baltimore: Removal of illegal pay phone at West Baltimore drug corner shows problem can be attacked

Getting away with MURDER

May 23, 1999

IT SOUNDS like a joke, but Public Works Director George G. Balog is serious. He wants to hire students to canvass Baltimore neighborhoods to count the number of illegal pay phones. "That's one of our ideas," he said at a City Council hearing last week.

We have a better idea. Since the Department of Public Works claims it has authorized only 592 pay phones, how about systematically removing the more than 1,000 phones that have no permits?

A starting point should be the Community Law Center's priority list of 47 pay phones linked to heavy drug and prostitution activity. Some may have permits; most do not. Yet despite repeated neighborhood complaints, authorities have done nothing.

Last week's council hearing suggested reasons why DPW is hesitant to act. It has no database of pay phone permits. Neither does the state's regulatory agency, the Public Service Commission.

Both agencies have been working overtime to correct the situation since a May 9 Sun editorial accused the city of aiding drug dealers by tolerating unlawful pay phones. The impression left at the City Council hearing, though, was of utter confusion.

An example: The editorial castigated DPW for not removing six unlawful pay phones at Monroe and Fayette streets, a well-known open-air drug market. After the Community Law Center intervened, five were taken away but one illegal phone remained.

At the hearing, DPW officials contended the phone had been turned off. Councilman Martin J. O'Malley said it was working when he checked that morning. Then, DPW said the illegal phone would be disconnected by the Public Service Commission in four days.

This was not quick enough for Mr. O'Malley, who noted that "nothing prevents Public Works from enforcing a city ordinance."

He recessed the hearing and led a motorcade to Monroe and Fayette streets. DPW officials conferred by cellular phone for 15 minutes to see if the agency indeed had the authority to rip away the phone. Then the phone was sawed off, with sparks flying.

On Friday, Public Works officials removed eight more illegal phones from the Wilkens Avenue vicinity, a drug-infested corridor responsible for many of the homicides in Southwestern Police District.

Similar clusters of pirate pay phones can be found near many other open-air drug markets. Four pay phones sit at the end of a largely boarded-up block. For what purpose?

Pirate phones often are installed outside convenience stores, where the owner typically receives 25 percent of the net revenue. The take can be significant because of expensive long-distance calls. Adding to earnings are all the people at the corner who buy soft drinks, cigarettes and other merchandise.

No wonder store owners are reluctant to alert police.

The Sun has called for aggressive court and police measures to curb Baltimore's unacceptably high homicide rate. Pirate phones are among the links between drugs and violence. They are easy to eradicate. That's why City Hall should remove them without delay as a public safety measure.

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