LONG BEACH — Equipped with beepers and stolen telephone credit cards, drug dealers are making street corners such as 20th Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard their place of illicit business, according to residents who have come up with an innovative solution to the problem.
If the police cannot get rid of the drug dealers and loiterers, these residents say, then get rid of the most important tool in their makeshift street office: public telephones.
And that's just what General Telephone told the City Council Tuesday it would do during the next month. A GTE spokesman said his company will experiment with removing phones from some intersections, while on other corners, telephones will be limited to only outgoing calls.
Officials Promise Crackdown
City officials unanimously agreed to work with GTE. They also agreed to make a stronger effort to get rid of what residents labeled in a petition as "winos, drunks, drug dealers and pushers."
But while expressing sympathy with residents who said they are both frustrated and intimidated by the men who loiter around the pay telephones, several officials also expressed concern that removing the telephones would take away a service needed by those who do not have their their own phones.
"I've never heard of this (solution) before," GTE division manager Roger P. Reyburn said after the council meeting. "Conceivably, they could move from corner to corner, until you don't have any public phones."
At last week's council meeting, Councilwoman Jan Hall asked, "Do we arrest the phone or do we arrest the bad guy using the phone?"
In addition to the cluster of six phones at a dairy mart at 1990 Martin Luther King Blvd., other sites targeted by the city and GTE are 17th Street and Orange Avenue, Hill Street and Atlantic Avenue, Cedar Avenue and Anaheim Boulevard, and 21st Street and Atlantic Avenue.
At Hill and Atlantic, for example, children from Burnett Elementary School are exposed to couples fondling each other and profanity from men using pay phones at a liquor store across the street, said Doris L. Topsy-Elvord, president of the Long Beach Central Area Assn.
Dealers Tie Up Phones
"The people who need to use the phones are not allowed to use the phones" because men conducting illegal drug trading keep the cluster of pay phones busy while intimidating anyone who might want to use them, Topsy-Elvord told the council.
"We would like to have the streets cleaned up. We have drug addicts on the corner. . . . You can hardly walk by the streets sometimes," said Carrie Breazzile, 83, one of the residents who signed the petition.
Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley acknowledged in an interview that "the public calls a lot and complains a lot, and we do the best we can."
Since January, police reported 57 arrests on the southeast and northeast corners of 20th Street and Martin Luther King. Most arrests involved the sale and purchase of rock cocaine, Deputy Chief Eugene Brizzolara reported in an April 17 memo.
Binkley said that removing public telephones is "a potential tool we can use against them." But, he said, police officers cannot arrest someone simply for using a telephone. They can, however, arrest people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who are violating probation, or who are loitering or breaking other laws, he said.
Binkley said he would encourage residents to call police with complaints.
"We'll do everything that we can, but it's going to take a long time to alleviate the problem," Binkley said.
More Police Needed
The police chief also said Long Beach needs additional police officers, stiffer penalties and more courts to prosecute those arrested.
GTE has contracts with property owners for the pay telephones. Unless a telephone is generating less than $150 a month in revenue, Reyburn said, GTE cannot remove it without the property owner's consent. City officials said that property owners at problem sites have appeared cooperative; if they aren't, there is another option.
James A. Algie, the city's financial management director, said that if drug dealing is proven to be a problem, the city can declare the property a public nuisance. That could ultimately mean that the business involved would lose its license, he said.
Councilman Clarence Smith said "there is so much a community can tolerate." If getting rid of some phones would help, "then move them," he said.
"We, as a community, have become immune to this kind of behavior," Councilman Ray Grabinski said. But, he said, the proposed changes and the discussion instigating them may become a "turning point" and "a perfect opportunity" to send out the message that Long Beach will be tough on drug dealers.
"We, as a community," Grabinski said, "are saying, 'hell, no, stay away from those telephones.' "