Drop-A-Dime Project Pays Off

Through an anonymous hotline, a community lessens drug traffic and related violence. DEFEATING DRUG DEALERS

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

GEORGETTE WATSON can tell you where to get drugs. If you want amphetamines, go to East Boston. Angel dust, South Boston. Mescaline, marijuana, coke, barbituates ... But she's no enterprising drug informant - she's one of the ``good guys.''

Ms. Watson is the president and cofounder of Drop-A-Dime, a 24-hour anonymous-tip hotline in Boston. Its success in working with communities and police against drugs and crime has made it a national model.

The citizen-based organization was founded six years ago in response to growing illegal drug activity and related violence in the Roxbury area. Watson, a community activist, saw that neighborhood residents knew about the drug scene and wanted it stopped, yet were fearful that calling the police might bring retribution from dealers and users. Also, there was a feeling of distrust between residents and police.

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A liaison was needed between the people and the police that guaranteed anonymity. So Watson and her friend the Rev. Bruce Wall set up Drop-A-Dime in 1983 with just one phone and an answering machine. Then they spread the word through public relations efforts and demonstration activities. When calls about illegal drug activity came in (``few and far between'' at first, says Watson), they would forward the information to the police.

Here's how it works: people in the Boston area call 427-DIME and give detailed information about illegal activity: descriptions of persons involved, vehicles, locations. Reports are compiled and sent to the police.

The police department then investigates and gives a neighborhood report to Drop-A-Dime as feedback and documentation.

``We're able to go one step beyond 911 in regards to working with people,'' says Watson. Here, they can find out how police responded to their call.

Today the nonprofit Drop-A-Dime project has several phone lines, its own office, a paid staff of three, and 16 volunteers. It serves as a trustworthy communication tool between the community and police. Not only do reports reach police within 24 hours, they are also faxed or sent to affiliated law-enforcement agencies - the Federal Drug Task Force, for example - which look at the bigger picture.

The watchdog's success has prompted the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (NCNE) to investigate its possible adaptation nationwide.

``We know it works in Boston,'' says Pam Taylor, spokeswoman of NCNE in Washington, D.C., which is conducting an inventory on the most adaptable neighborhood-based programs warring against illegal drugs. ``We believe that this kind of effort, with this kind of community commitment, can work in communities with the same kind of problem all over the country.''

But Georgette Watson is looking even farther into the national telescope. ``The ultimate goal is that I'd like to see a national grass-roots tracking information data bank,'' she says, during an interview in her cramped office lined with awards.

Watson, a mother of three, is now at the helm of Drop-A-Dime (also known as Drop-A-Dime/Report-A-Crime), as Mr. Wall resigned in 1985 to focus on other efforts. She credits much of Drop-A-Dime's success to a dedicated staff and cooperation from the community and the Boston Police Department. There are similar tip lines around the US, says Watson, but ``they don't have a police relationship like we do.''

Joseph Carter, superintendent of Boston Police and chief of the Bureau of Special Operations, says of Drop-A-Dime: ``It's been one of the most worthwhile and positive relationships that I've had with a community grass-roots organization involved with abating crime activity.''

Drop-a-Dime receives 300 to 650 calls a month, says Watson. According to Superintendent Carter, one of every 12 of those calls results in an arrest. But he's quick to point out that even if information doesn't lead to an arrest right away, it does add to important police intelligence.

``We're very fortunate to have an agency like Drop-A-Dime ... it has a mechanism and system in place to maintain the integrity of information,'' says Carter.

Drop-A-Dime has been instrumental in several major drug busts. In 1984, after months of receiving information from Drop-A-Dime, the Federal Drug Task Force along with Boston Police broke up ``the Capsule Boys,'' a large heroin ring based in Greensborough, S.C., that brought in millions of dollars.

Similar reporting on people and street activity also led to the arrest of ``Foots Simon,'' a drug kingpin in Boston, known to spend $3,000 a week on shoes.

Then there was Jessie James Waters who ran an operation for 15 years and had several 24-hour stores that sold drugs, explains Watson. He was eventually arrested because he shot a police officer. ``We fed a tremendous amount of information beforehand,'' recalls Watson. ``At his trial, he stated publicly that he had paid off police from the top to the bottom ... that the only reason he was in court on that date was because of the activity of Drop-A-Dime.''

As an anti-drug, anti-crime crusader, Watson has taken her concept on the road, establishing affiliates of Drop-A-Dime in other communities and conducting workshops across the US. She says she'd like to see all Drop-A-Dimes operate independently, so she can devote more time to speaking and training.

``This is one program that will not fade away,'' she says, adding that the only weak part has been lack of funding. Last spring, Drop-A-Dime almost dropped out completely, but media exposure helped generate funds to save it. Since June, the organization has received $55,000. Most funding is private.

But the risks involved in conducting such a service aren't only financial. Watson admits to receiving threats and ``phone blasts.'' And although the office location is supposed to be kept confidential, Watson says ``we're the best kept secret everybody knows.'' She admits that the beginning was really ``hairy,'' but can now recall feeling endangered only twice.

``I don't get invited to any parties.... People don't want to stand too close to me in public,'' she says, jokingly.

``She's a very brave person,'' remarks Pearl Corbin, a staff member. ``Most people wouldn't have the guts that she has - so she earns a lot of respect.''

That respect has led to numerous forms of recognition including a 1989 President's Volunteer Action Award. In addition to the tip line, Drop-A-Dime beams helpful information to the public by way of anti-drug brochures, neighborhood crime-watch guides, rehabilitation information, and streetwise safety tips.

``It's been bewildering and amazing that this has come about. It's all been exciting to me,'' says Watson. ``I never would have thought a phone would go this far.''

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