NOI GUARDS TELL OF SPIRITUAL CALLING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It would end peacefully -- a minor entry in the long list of confrontations between Nation of Islam Security Agency guards and teen-agers trying to visit the George B. Murphy Homes public housing high-rises on Baltimore's west side.

A dozen youths, upset that a guard won't let them in because they refuse to show identification cards, start kicking the bulletproof booth by the front door. The female guard calls police.

A bit later, an officer from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Earl C. Jones, arrives. Six stone-faced NOI guards line the front entrance. It's a standoff with the youths. "I'm going to give you a break," Officer Jones sternly tells the teens. "I'm talking to you like men. Don't harass NOI. Don't get on NOI's nerves. Give NOI a break. That's all I ask . . . and I'll walk away from here."

The police leave and the group scatters.

To the NOI guards, standing watch over Baltimore's troubled public housing complexes is more than a job. It is more like a religious crusade -- a calling from God to rescue "oppressed" residents forced to live in crime-ridden squalor, they say.

"It is our duty to serve God," proclaimed a guard named Robert 4X.

"We take the abuse and we give them back a smile," said another guard, Donte X. "Eventually, we will win the people over. It is dangerous. But we really care about this job. It is about making life better for people in the community."

Neatly dressed in white pleated shirts and red bow ties, the Muslim guards command respect as they patrol 16 public housing buildings in Baltimore. They say they are the only ones dedicated enough to do the job.

The secretive group patrols some of the most dangerous real estate in Baltimore, and residents, especially those at Murphy Homes, generally like the guards.

Last month, NOI Security's money troubles became acute. The firm, which operates nationwide, filed for bankruptcy protection. As a result, the city is renegotiating its contract, giving NOI speedier payments in exchange for a deep discount to #i Baltimore. Last week, housing authority chief Daniel P. Henson III said NOI was doing its job of "keeping peace and calm" in the high-rises.

An evening spent with one group at the 1058 Argyle Ave. high-rise -- regarded as the most violent and drug-ridden building in the city -- proved to be hectic but routine. Guards checked in hundreds of visitors and double-checked with residents to make sure the visitors were welcome.

They were skeptical of a reporter's presence, predicting the article would be skewed, as they said all are, against their faith and their mission.

But after the alleged beating March 26 of a resident by four NOI guards -- the latest in several controversies surrounding the security force -- city housing officials allowed a reporter into the security booth at its most troubled building. Though city officials promised complete access, guards refused repeated requests to tour the building beyond the lobby.

Seven guards were working at the 1058 Building, one of three Murphy Homes high-rises. The guards were in a booth about 20 feet long, the upper half of the wall separating it from the lobby made of bulletproof glass, allowing guards a view of the lobby and a courtyard outside.

Their desk resembled a cramped shelf that ran the length of the window and was crammed with logbooks and two-way police radios.

Though they let housing authority police handle dangerous incidents, the unarmed guards usually are the first to arrive at domestic disputes and other altercations.

"They understand that people are not objects," said Hezekiah Bunch, chief of the housing authority's police department. "This is not to say that NOI is the answer. They are part of the answer. But other security companies could learn from them -- that their only job is not just to watch something."

Phyllis Smith, who has lived in Murphy Homes since 1979 and is well-known for her stand against drug dealers, remembers a time when drugs were available in virtually every stairwell. "This is the best that it's been," she said.

The rules, she said, are strict but necessary. "It's the people who don't want to pay attention to the rules who cause problems."

Another resident, David Buchanan, 29, said he doesn't mind showing his ID card every time he comes inside. "They are doing their job."

It isn't easy. After the alleged assault in March, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, while saying brutality by guards would not be tolerated, said, "there's almost a war going on between the drug dealers and NOI for control of the building."

Just four years ago, Murphy Homes was known as "Murder Homes," and shotgun-toting drug dealers guarded the doors and bought off the private security guards then being used.

The housing authority says NOI has turned that around, though it readily admits that Murphy Homes, particularly the 1058 Building, remains its biggest concern.

While other high-rises, such as Lafayette Courts, are to be torn down, one city police officer who works on drug investigations in public housing said Murphy Homes "would have been my first choice" to reduce to rubble.

The undercover city police officer, who asked not to be identified, remembers when the earlier private guards were corrupt. "We chased the drug dealers, and they let the drug dealers in and shut the door on us."

The officer credits NOI with keep ing dealers mostly out of the high-rise and on the street, where they can be caught more easily.

Statistics for the Murphy Homes neighborhood -- bounded by Pennsylvania and Fremont avenues, Franklin and Dolphin streets and Martin Luther King Boulevard -- show 10 homicides, 144 robberies and 201 assaults since January 1993. No one has been slain in the area this year. Since NOI started patrolling public housing -- some buildings in 1993 and the rest last year -- "911" calls from those buildings have been reduced by 50 percent, city police say.

But drug dealers and users abound. Police say Murphy Homes provides a prime spot for cocaine and heroin sales -- dealers stash narcotics inside and ply their trade on the streets, using narrow alleys and walkways to move between the high-rises and nearby street corners.

Chief Bunch said security provided by NOI inadvertently keeps dealers safe, because they are less worried about combating outsiders who may rob them of drugs or money.

In December, more than 150 officers swarmed over the Murphy complex and raided 27 apartments looking for an equal number of dealers. The raid followed the arrest a week earlier of a city maintenance worker who was charged with using his position to hide heroin.

Several police officers and residents said they would feel more secure if all the guards were Muslim -- something housing officials said cannot be done because it would violate federal anti-discrimination laws. The undercover city officer said corruption crops up in non-Muslim guards in the same way it occurred under other security agencies in the past.

"I wish every one of you were Muslim," Ms. Smith told several guards in the lobby of the 1058 Building. The Muslim guards, she said, have an appearance that "even the most violent thugs have to respect."

While a reporter was on a tour with Officer Jones and several of his colleagues during a three-day period, nothing occurred to compare with the alleged beating that landed the four guards in jail. But the officers made dozens of drug arrests, most on the streets around Murphy Homes, where crowds of dealers and users gathered and moved depending on where the police were.

Many housing authority officers respect the job NOI is doing but some show disdain, saying they could do a better job themselves guarding the buildings.

One evening, a police lookout watched a woman buy a packet of heroin, then walk into the lobby of the 1058 Building. Officer Jones and his partner burst inside and arrested the woman.

Sgt. Leonard Tennessee, a shift commander, showed up and mocked the NOI guards who watched the arrest. "You all let her in the building," the sergeant said.

"She had her ID," one NOI guard said, not amused.

"All these people and yet she still gets into the building," he said again.

But Chief Bunch cautioned that since the alleged beating, the violence around Murphy Homes has quieted as police -- uniformed and undercover -- step up patrols. The chief said some teen-agers who appear to be nothing more than rabble-rousers can be dangerous.

"Drug dealers are using kids who are younger and younger," he (( said. "These kids also carry guns. It's a dangerous environment."

Connie Caplan, president of the Time Group, which owns and manages apartments in the Baltimore area, started a task force to see whether Murphy Homes could be helped by privatizing some aspects of its management.

"I think it's an embarrassment to run projects that look so bad," said Ms. Caplan, who also is on the Board of Housing Commissioners.

"But on the other hand, I think, you got to talk about resident responsibility. You have got to be able to evict residents who don't pay their rent. It's a two-way street."

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