A committee examining strategies to revitalize the Clay Street area in Annapolis has suggested hiring the Nation of Islam Security Agency to patrol the neighborhood, sparking controversy among residents, committee members and city council members.
"I don't even understand why they're entertaining an idea like this," said Ward 1 Alderman Louise Hammond. "From what I've heard about this group, I don't think that's what the city wants. I got calls from several people who were very upset about this."
Bertina Nick, a Clay Street community activist and advisory committee member, was angered that mention of NOI Security so quickly grabbed the attention of city council members and the media.
"Why does that frighten people?" she asked. "The NOI has done an excellent job. We've got to stop people from telling us who we can deal with."
Hiring NOI Security, which is overseen by followers of the controversial Minister Louis Farrakhan, was one of several public safety suggestions delivered to the city council last week in a draft report by the Clay Street Advisory Committee.
The panel of residents, business leaders and city officials, which has worked for more than a year on an urban renewal plan, also recommended establishing anti-crime initiatives with local businesses, controlling speeding cars in the area and hiring a full-time public safety coordinator to serve as liaison between the neighborhood and the police.
Several aldermen praised the committee's public safety recommendations but steered clear of the issue of NOI Security.
Ward 2 Alderman Dean Johnson, who represents the Clay Street area, said that the idea of hiring NOI Security came up during brainstorming sessions with residents, but that the city council is more likely to embrace increased community patrols.
"At this point, it's not being taken seriously by the city council," he said.
"But these are suggestions that are being offered, and nothing is being turned down."
Clay Street, an area centered on Clay and West Washington streets northwest of the historic district. is home to more than 1,100 people and is one of the city's oldest black neighborhoods. After the explosion of drug use in the early 1980s, it also became one of the city's busiest open-air drug markets.
In Baltimore and Washington, where NOI Security has contracts to patrol public housing projects, residents have said the guards have helped them reclaim their communities and offer positive role models.
But Congress is examining such contracts with NOI Security nationwide for possible violations of federal laws.
Last year, federal auditors found that 29 of Baltimore NOI guards had had felony convictions. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently found that Baltimore's $4.6 million contract with the Nation of Islam Security Agency violates federal rules.
Perhaps the most controversial element of this security force is its relationship to Minister Farrakhan, who argues there is a Jewish conspiracy against the black community.
During Clay Street community meetings over the past year, local activists have argued that police protection is not enough to help them reclaim the neighborhood. Some residents, such as Amaro Lemon, support hiring NOI Security.
Mr. Lemon, a former NOI Security guard, said the neighborhood needs a neighborhood patrol culled directly from the community, because some residents don't feel safe under city police protection.
"We already have an occupying army within the community. They carry guns in the city. It's the Police Department," Mr. Lemon said. "In fact, they do more damage and more harm, as opposed to NOI Security. We would be exact and perfect in the Clay Street community."
Ward 5 Alderman Carl O. Snowden said hiring NOI would indicate a lack of faith in the city police.
"Entering into a contract with NOI Security would be an indication that the law enforcement officials were incapable of providing the security necessary for that area," he said.
Annapolis Police Chief Joseph S. Johnson would not comment specifically on NOI Security, but he cautioned against neighborhoods hiring private security details before trying community-based anti-crime efforts.
"Any time you hire anybody else to do what the citizens should be doing is a very dangerous practice," he said.
Chief Johnson said the Police Department is bolstering its efforts in the Clay Street area. It is establishing a community policing unit in an abandoned building at Clay and West Washington streets, the heart of the community and also one of its busiest drug corners, he said.
The committee's full report will cover economic and housing opportunities for Clay Street residents, along with public safety improvements. It includes suggestions for providing more job training services, establishing more locally owned businesses, adding parks and establishing new community centers.
"Clay Street has been almost out of sight, out of mind in the city," Mr. Johnson said. "Hopefully, this will help people see."