On a sidewalk in Shaw, a dozen Muslim men wearing red T-shirts gather an hour before sundown.
Half line up quietly behind an imam. Facing southeast toward Mecca, they bow their heads and read aloud verses from the Koran. The other half spread themselves out and look up and down the street. After a few minutes, they switch places.
The men have come not just to pray but to assume control over a crime-prone block.
They are part of a Muslim neighborhood watch that lately has focused its efforts on Seventh Street NW between P and Q streets, site of the long-troubled Kelsey Gardens apartment complex. Just a few weeks ago, the location was beset by drug dealers, armed assaults and random shootings.
The group is composed of Muslims who practice a more orthodox form of Islam than such groups as the Nation of Islam, says founder Leroy Thorpe.
It is a spinoff of the Citizens Organized Patrol Efforts, or COPE, a neighborhood watch established in 1988 in Shaw. Both groups dress in ample red T-shirts and red baseball hats with “COPE Patrol” written on them.
About two months ago, owners of the 35-unit Kelsey Gardens complex asked Thorpe to arrange security for the residents and crack down on drug dealers who gravitated to a parking lot in the complex, Thorpe said. The complex is slated to be razed next month and a new structure will take its place. Thorpe said that the owners want to encourage more investment in the area.
“Nobody is going to invest in a drug-infested area,” said Thorpe, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who also goes by the Muslim name Mahdi.
D.C. police, who say they know of no other religion-based citizens patrol operating in the District, credit the Muslims with rousting the drug dealers and restoring a measure of public safety to the neighborhood. “There was an overwhelming difference,” said Officer Earl Brown of the 3rd Police District.
Patrol members carry no weapons, and several of the men said they had no training in self-defense. But their presence seems to be effective.
“You have eyes and ears in the neighborhood,” said Cmdr. Larry McCoy, who heads the Third Police District. “Most people don’t like to commit crimes in front of people who are going to tell the police about them.”
Driven by the power of faith, the patrol has a secondary aim: to “call people to worship Allah,” said Khalil Davis, the imam for the Salafi Society of D.C. mosque.
A long salt-and-pepper beard framing his thin face and dressed in a white dishdasha, the traditional Muslim men’s calf-length garment, Davis handed out literature to passersby describing Islam as a religion of peace.
One leaflet contained two pictures, one of waterfalls and natural greenery, the other of a huge, smoky fireball. “You decide,” it said. The group called the leaflets “Islam’s anti-terror message.”
“It is a therapeutic ambience to the community,” Davis said of the religion. “This creates a community that is pure and free of crimes.”
But it is a message that can be difficult to spread. Davis tried to distribute the leaflets to pedestrians, but most refused to take them.
The Muslim patrol works 12-hour shifts, three nights a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which Thorpe said are peak nights for drug dealing.
On a patrol one recent weeknight, the men walked around the complex in pairs. They were scouting for “suspicious activity” and “undesirable people,” Thorpe said.
They peered behind large trash cans in alleys, looking for drug addicts who might be hiding. They went into a parking lot between two buildings and walked between the rows of cars, hoping their presence would chase off anyone who might be lurking.
“They see us, they are going to flee,” said Thorpe, who carries a cellphone to call police if he needs help.
This night was uneventful. The walkie-talkies remained mute. Residents walking out of their apartment building waved to the Muslim patrol members, who waved back.
Residents seem to recognizes the Muslim patrol by now, and the Muslims have come to recognize most of the people who live on the block. “Assalamu Alaikum,” they say in greeting — Arabic for “peace be upon you. “
The Muslim patrol group is the only one of its kind in the District, according to the police department, but several patrol members said they hope to duplicate it in other neighborhoods.
“I would love to do it in my neighborhood,” said Brian Christopher, 40, who lives with his wife and two children in a neighborhood in Northeast Washington that has no citizens patrol. “But it has to start somewhere.”
Several residents and local business people said they were pleased it started in Shaw.
“They are really helping out,” said Tony Dolford, 38, a Kelsey Gardens resident who has lived in the neighborhood since 1993.
Everett Lucas, 66, owns the Variety Market across the street from the apartment complex. The market has been open for 34 years.
“One thing you don’t see now [in the neighborhood] is drug activity,” Lucas said.
“Knock on wood,” McCoy said. “It’s made a difference. Those planning to do wrong in the neighborhood know they are out there, and it stops them.”