Muslim guards are praised by tenants, who see no evidence of discrimination

January 20, 1995|By Robert Hilson Jr. and Tia Matthews | Robert Hilson Jr. and Tia Matthews,Sun Staff Writers

The federal government suspects there is religious and racial discrimination in the Nation of Islam-affiliated security companies that patrol public housing in many major American cities.

But Baltimore officials say the problems don't exist here. And public housing residents say that even if problems are uncovered, the Muslim guards have reduced crime, restored order and become respected role models.

"The buildings are safer now," Neta Holmes, an 11-year resident of Lafayette Courts, said yesterday. "At one time drug dealers were in the buildings, and everywhere you turned you saw a drug dealer."

Many residents in the city's 16 high-rise public housing buildings also feel that the government investigation of NOI security is aimed at blunting the success of Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam.

The Clinton administration is investigating NOI security to determine whether the agency discriminated based on race and religion in its hiring and in providing service to tenants.

Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, ordered the investigation to determine whether the security firm had broken federal civil rights laws or HUD regulations. Problems could lead the department to cancel more than $10 million in annual contracts at public housing in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities.

Last May, Baltimore's Housing Authority awarded NOI security a one-year, $4.6 million contract to provide security to public housing citywide. The areas were drug- and crime-ridden, and strewn with trash.

Months later, a HUD audit of the authority raised questions about the contract.

It noted that the firm was the highest bidder but "did not have any special training or understanding of public housing needs." And it said the firm hired 29 guards who had been convicted of felonies -- close to half the guards hired to handle the contract.

Still, many residents said yesterday that the guards -- young men who wear red bow ties and white shirts -- have been welcome additions to their neighborhoods.

The stern but polite NOI guards who sit in the buildings' entrance booths have given residents a newfound sense of security, said Greg Lester Brown, 41, who has lived in the Lafayette Courts housing development in East Baltimore since the late 1970s.

When the guards began patrols in May, his building was overrun with strangers and drug trafficking, he said.

But not now.

"If you don't know anybody or show ID, you can't get in," Mr. Brown said. "It's better than it used to be. If they hired more people, it would be better."

Members of the NOI security's local office declined to comment yesterday on the federal investigation.

Daniel J. Henson III, the city housing commissioner, said the allegations against NOI security had been brought to his attention months ago. However, an internal investigation found no wrongdoings, he said.

"The truth is that they have a very unique kind of patrol," Mr. Henson said. "I'm happy that the contract is being lived up to by NOI. If NOI were not living up to the contract, I would do something else."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke acknowledged yesterday that using NOI security was controversial, but he said the organization has had positive results.

"In terms of bottom-line results, they are doing such a good job and the living environment in public housing developments has so markedly improved that I would be reluctant to remove NOI security from those developments," Mr. Schmoke said.

The mayor also said the city has looked into allegations that NOI security violated civil rights and labor laws, and found no wrongdoing. "At this point, all the evidence we have on this contract is that NOI security is doing a very good job, that there are no improprieties."

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