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NOI's rough justice


An ugly incident in Dallas involving the alleged beating of four teen-agers accused by NOI Security guards of stealing raises troubling questions about the Nation of Islam-affiliated company that has been awarded contracts to guard public housing projects in Baltimore.

Last week, Dallas police arrested four NOI security guards and charged them with aggravated kidnapping after they and about 50 other members of the group allegedly used belts and bamboo canes to flog four youths suspected of stealing a cash register machine from a bric-a-brac store in a black-owned mall. Police allege the teen-agers were forced to strip and run a gauntlet of 50 Nation of Islam members, who beat them with belts. The boys suffered bruises on their backs, buttocks and legs before being released to their parents.

The mall's owner defended the NOI guards, saying that residents of black neighborhoods trust them more than the police. But police officials say the guards broke the law by punishing the youths and that no group has a right to take the law into their own hands.

The case recalls a similar incident in Baltimore last March, in which four Nation of Islam security guards were arrested on charges of severely beating a man after shots were fired near a public housing project. One of the guards was subsequently identified as a former Baltimore police officer who had been fired for using excessive force.

Yet at the time some residents at city public housing developments also defended the guards' actions. The residents maintained that while they were concerned about the amount of force and tactics used by NOI guards, they still felt more secure as a result of their presence than when city housing police officers patrolled the buildings.

Therein lies the dilemma for city officials trying to balance residents' concerns over crime in troubled neighborhoods with the tactics of private security firms that straddle the line of lawful deterrence. The problem is compounded by political considerations in the case of NOI because of its affiliation with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose anti-Semitic remarks have sparked protest over NOI's receiving federal grant money.

Baltimore officials need to make clear to NOI that the city will not tolerate vigilante justice. If the firm can't ensure such incidents won't be repeated, its contract should be withdrawn. No one has a right to try and convict suspected wrongdoers on the spot. That's still the job of a judge and jury.

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