A security firm affiliated with the Rev. Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam has been pulled off patrols at a Venice apartment complex for failing to curb drug dealing so rampant that federal authorities threatened to seize the building.
The owners of the federally subsidized building on Brooks Avenue, the hub of the Oakwood neighborhood's drug market, temporarily posted a new armed patrol of off-duty police this week after viewing surveillance videotapes and other evidence showing drugs being sold in view of unarmed guards employed by N.O.I. Security Agency Inc., federal authorities said.
Although building managers were said to be weighing whether to give N.O.I. another chance at the job, the replacement was a major setback for the agency, which earned early praise for cutting gang crime in 15 low-income buildings in Venice after starting its patrols in November. The $53,676-a-month contract, urged by many tenants, made headlines when Jewish groups offended by Farrakhan's teachings criticized the use of federal aid. Other skeptics predicted that the guards would not be able to control armed gang members.
Although the guards were initially credited with forcing drug dealers out of the apartments and into the streets, where police could arrest them, neighbors complained that the peddlers returned when the patrols were off duty. The guards, in slate-gray uniforms and red bow ties, worked unpredictable shifts to throw off criminals but rarely patrolled around the clock.
In recent months, authorities complained, N.O.I. guards at times allowed suspects into the gated 25-unit Brooks Avenue complex but were slow to open the gates for pursuing police. Officers said the guards were not actively helping the drug dealers, but appeared to have been intimidated by gang members who have fought with and even shot at them.
"You have guards out there who aren't getting paid to die," said Lt. Steve Allen, who heads a Los Angeles Police Department patrol team in Oakwood. "They just decided it was easier to turn a blind eye to what happened rather than do what you would hope a security company would do."
N.O.I. officials in Los Angeles and Washington did not return phone calls requesting comment. Officials at Alliance Housing Management Inc. in Los Angeles, which manages the privately owned buildings known as Holiday Venice, also did not return calls.
Residents and neighbors said gang activity at the Brooks Avenue building has quieted since 24-hour armed patrols were added last weekend. But tenants who campaigned to hire the Nation of Islam--after hearing of its success at patrolling drug-ridden housing projects on the East Coast--said the security firm was being blamed unfairly for police inability to smash Oakwood's drug market.
"It took us 2 1/2 years of fighting to bring the Nation in here, to get security," said tenant Julia Davis. "Here we are at this same place again."
The job clearly is a formidable one. The new security firm, Special Protective Services, quickly recommended that Alliance pay for two more guards--up to five--after receiving a tip from police that the Venice Shoreline Crips gang was planning an ambush of the new patrols.
The move to hire the new firm came Friday after city and federal authorities ordered Alliance to post armed guards or risk having the building seized.
One government official said Alliance had summoned an N.O.I. supervisor from the firm's Washington headquarters to discuss the security arrangements. The N.O.I. firm continues to patrol the other Holiday Venice buildings, which are scattered throughout the compact neighborhood of bungalows.
In recent months, N.O.I. guards have clashed regularly with gang members who deal drugs openly and bully neighbors who complain. At times, N.O.I. has answered force with its own shows of might, sending dozens of suited Nation of Islam members to march in formation after confrontations with gangs.
But police and neighbors say the patrols failed to control crime at the Brooks Avenue building.
"They were ineffective. They were isolated. They lacked backup," Allen said.