Baltimore's public high-rises underwent a controversial changing of the guard this morning after two federal judges rejected last-minute appeals yesterday by the Nation of Islam Security Agency to permit it to continue patrolling the projects.
The rulings meant that at midnight, the job went to Wells Fargo Guard Services, which underbid NOI more than a year ago by $1.1 million. The federal government ruled last month that the city Housing Authority "arbitrarily" hired NOI security and ordered the contract revoked.
Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said late last night as he waited for the transition from NOI to Wells Fargo at Lexington Terrace that conditions at the city's housing projects have improved significantly since he assumed his post in 1993.
"You could not get as close as we are right now without getting accosted. All I want to do is make sure we don't go back to that," he said.
At midnight, the transition was reported to have occurred peaceably throughout the city.
Yesterday morning, dozens of residents and other NOI security advocates packed a courtroom for a three-hour hearing. Some complained after Senior U.S. District Judge Edward S. Northrop announced his decision.
NOI argued that it and the public would be irrevocably harmed if it lost the contract. Judge Northrop found otherwise, saying there was little, if any, legal basis for NOI's claims.
Lawyers for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority said that blocking the Wells Fargo contract would have far more serious consequences for the public.
Assured by testimony from a Wells Fargo executive, who said his company had trained 160 new guards and was bound by the contract to do work identical to that of NOI, Judge Northrup declined to block the new contract.
Wells Fargo has hired some of the security guards who had been working for NOI Security, said Laurence A. Marder, a lawyer for Wells Fargo. Twenty to 25 percent of the guards who will be assigned to the high-rise projects once worked for NOI, he said.
"The court assumes that the defendants will do all in their power to ensure that the safety of the tenants is not jeopardized in any fashion," the judge said.
"I think it was a dirty deal NOI got today," said Dorothy Scott, president of the Flag House Courts tenant council. She predicted an upsurge in crime.
NOI succeeded in forcing drug dealers from the buildings, and, for the first time, residents did not feel like prisoners in their own homes, she said.
Late in the afternoon, NOI lawyers went to Francis D. Murnaghan Jr., a federal appeals court judge, to try to get the ruling reversed, but he rejected the appeal.
"The next step is that we intend to exhaust the process of legal redress for this grievance that is available to us," said Jamil Muhammad of the Nation of Islam.
Wells Fargo signed a one-year contract yesterday, with a one-year renewal clause, to patrol the city's high-rise projects.