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.
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."
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."
A positive mystique
In many neighborhoods where NOI works, the police and most private security firms are seen as unwelcome interlopers. But NOI carries a mystique rooted in the Nation of Islam's image in much of the African-American community.
"We definitely enjoy what you might call a moral authority in the community," says Leonard Muhammad, chief of staff for Mr. Farrakhan. "It's not that people fear us; it's more that they respect us. The only way to deal with the young people who are viewed as causing problems is to have someone who they respect who can reach them and reason with them and that they know have their best interests at heart."
While NOI generally enjoys widespread respect, the group has encountered some problems.
At a Northwest Washington housing project last year, a NOI guard station was sprayed with bullets after a man was allegedly beaten by members of the Nation of Islam. No one was hurt in the shooting. The beating allegedly took place after men threatened to kill a guard.
Failure in California
In Venice, Calif., the firm was fired in September after failing to control drug trading and crime at 15 federally subsidized apartment buildings. Supporters said NOI was handicapped in its year on the job in Venice because its contract did not call for around-the-clock patrols.
And while NOI has received wide praise for its success at Flag, the security firm that previously worked at the development says the housing authority made the complex much easier to protect by performing massive cleanups at the high-rises before NOI took over. The previous company also argues that it was impossible to make a dent in crime at Flag under its contract, which called for only one guard per building.
"Any company could have done what NOI did," says Robert H. Martin, director of security for Ray Butler Loss Prevention and Security Services, which lost its $210,000-a-year contract when NOI was brought in. "Anybody can keep the troublemakers out, once a place has been cleaned out. We were up against adverse conditions. We had to deal with the circumstances as they were."
Mr. Martin says public-housing security jobs should be made available for other firms to bid on --something city housing officials are facing federal pressure to do.
"We will be looking at ways to bid this over the next month or so; that's what [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] calls for," says Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. "But the question I have to answer now is, what happens if we don't keep [NOI] on the job?"
Mr. Henson says he hired NOI to work in public housing after hearing recommendations about its work from officials at a Washington, D.C., property management firm.
"The training they described was different than my perception of what a rent-a-cop receives," Mr. Henson says. "The training was much more in human relations than I imagined. How do you get people to do the right thing? How do you get along with people? Those were the questions they focused on."
A different approach
Others who hire NOI agree that the firm stands apart from other security companies.
"People on the street give the Muslim brothers a lot more respect than they give other people in uniform," says German Blanding, a Baltimore nightclub owner who has promoted rap acts including MC Lyte and Big Daddy Kane. "I really think it is that people don't look at those people as not being police officers. If you got a regular security guard, somebody will try them. That doesn't happen with NOI."
Mr. Lane, the Chicago Housing Authority chairman, plans to contract with the firm at the federally subsidized Eutaw Gardens apartment complex being renovated on the western fringe of Bolton Hill. Mr. Lane heads a group in the process of buying the complex.
"There is this sense that when you mess with one NOI member, you're messing with the entire organization," he says. "You beat up one of these guys and you may have to deal with the whole Nation of Islam."
At West Baltimore's Bethel AME Church, NOI guards can be seen directing students along Druid Hill Avenue each day as they file toward Bethel Christian School. The guards also chat with students who pass by on their way to the city's Booker T. Washington Middle School.
Building community relations
"The students walking to Booker T. speak to the brothers," says the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, who brushed aside the objections of several church members when he hired the guards almost a year ago. "There is no proselytizing. They are just being friendly and building good community relations."
NOI says its guards are steeped in that philosophy. New employees undergo six weeks of training, much of it on the job, Mr. Muhammad says. Much of the orientation involves immersing the new guards in the firm's way of thinking.
"We are servants of the community. We are not there simply to protect property," Mr. Muhammad says. "We believe the best way to protect property is to help citizens to have a higher value of themselves. When people have greater respect for themselves . . . they will begin to value where they live."