Community respect arms Nation of Islam guards

December 12, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

A young man is sitting in front of a building at the Flag House Courts public housing project when one of the new security guards from the Nation of Islam approaches.

"You can't loiter here, brother," the guard says firmly. The man explains that he is waiting for a friend who lives upstairs. "You can wait in the lobby," the guard says. "No loitering outside."

The man promptly moves inside as the guard bends over to pick up a piece of trash.

It is the type of respect that no other security guards or police have received in recent times at the East Baltimore housing project near Lombard and Exeter streets. Until NOI arrived in June, Flag was a fearsome place -- so bad that guards for the old security firm were instructed not to talk to residents.

But now, some measure of respect and calm is returning to Flag. And Baltimore housing officials and tenants give a large share of the credit to the unarmed, bow-tie-wearing guards from Baltimore-based N.O.I. Security Agency Inc.

"These guys are more involved with the community than any other security people who worked over here," says Derrick Turpin, 26, a lifelong Flag resident. "Sometimes, they have their [news]papers out there and the bean pies. You can see some of the young kids around here look up to them; they even want to put on bow ties."

The company is finding success where the police and other security guards have failed. Some say it is because of the respect the Nation of Islam enjoys in many African-American communities for the clean, disciplined lifestyles of its members and the uncompromising, sometimes strident tone of its leader, Minister Louis T. Farrakhan.

NOI also benefits from the intimidating but respectful image of the Fruit of Islam, an elite security force that serves as bodyguards for Mr. Farrakhan and provided protection for the Rev. Jesse Jackson during part of his 1984 presidential bid.

Whatever the reason, Baltimore housing officials say NOI has virtually eliminated violent crime in three high-rise buildings at Flag. Housing officials have since broadened the group's no-bid contract to include several buildings at the Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace developments.

'Dope busters'

NOI's success in Baltimore is adding to a nationwide reputation the firm earned in 1988 when it drove drug dealers from two apartment complexes in Washington, D.C., and gained the nickname "dope busters."

To look at them, the NOI guards in Baltimore hardly seem fit for policing mean places. Many of them are small and baby-faced; some are women. Tenants say they often work shifts as long as 12 and 16 hours. Their only weapons are a firm, brotherly word, the moral lifestyles they embody, an unblinking look in the eye, and the star-and-crescent logo on their uniform jackets.

But NOI is widely sought to work in situations that other firms could not manage. Calls for help have come from beleaguered managers of crime-ridden housing developments from Venice, Calif., to New York City. In Baltimore, concert promoters, private apartment complexes and an AME church have hired security guards from the Nation of Islam.

"My whole approach to NOI is straightforward and common-sensical and has nothing to do with religion," says Vince Lane, chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. "They have the respect of what we would consider the anti-social part of the African-American community."

Vandalism reduced

At Flag, the company earns $865,000 a year for having at least nine people patrol the complex 24 hours a day.

Housing officials say they already are recouping some of that expense in reduced vandalism.

At one Flag high-rise, elevator repairs used to average $40,000 a month; in September, officials say the repair bill at the same building was $3,000.

While NOI earned its reputation at tough housing developments like Flag, the company has other contracts: at a major Federal Express facility and a cable television company, both in Washington, D.C.

NOI also is working with public housing officials in Chicago on a security deal that could lead to the company eventually managing some buildings.

'A diversified company'

"We are not simply a firm that deals strictly in residential or urban project security, although that's our mainstay," says Abdul Arif Muhammad, general counsel for the firm. "We are a diversified company. A lot of the reputation that we have emerges from how we began."

The state police, which licenses private security agencies, says NOI has 109 employees in Maryland. NOI officials will not reveal how many guards it employs nationally, saying only that the firm has "hundreds" of workers. And while most of the guards are members of the Nation of Islam, Mr. Muhammad says the company is "an equal opportunity employer" that asks only that its employees exhibit high moral standards.

"It's fair to say that we are experiencing rapid growth at NOI," he says. "I think it's an indication of the climate of the times we are living in. Security is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country."

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