MIAMI – Controversy is growing in Miami over the city's decision to launch a nearly $1 million crime-fighting initiative that will include street patrols by a group with close ties to the Nation of Islam.
The City of Miami says it plans to give $150,000 to a civilian patrol group known as the Peacemakers, to be run by the Progressive Land Development International, an organization that shares a mailing address with the Nation of Islam in Miami.
The rest of the money will go to separate initiatives, including adding video camera surveillance and extra police patrols in the predominately black neighborhood of Overtown.
But not everyone thinks having a group tied to the Nation of Islam patrolling the neighborhood is a good idea.
Andrew Rosenkranz, the Anti Defamation League's Florida Regional Director, said the Nation of Islam has "a well-documented, irrefutable public record of racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism." He said the city had chosen an unlikely group to teach tolerance and civil behavior.
Once a thriving black community in heart of downtown Miami, Overtown — with a population of about 40,000 — fell into ghetto conditions in the 1960s when a freeway overpass was built straight through its middle. Despite some upscale urban housing and business development, the gentrification has done little to combat rampant violent and drug-related crime.
Details of the program are still vague and an official contract has yet to be signed. But Ed O'Dell, spokesman for the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, said the suit-and-tie wearing Muslim group will be working independent from police as role models and crime watchers.
"These are really three separate contracts, the surveillance cameras, extra police, and the Peacemakers," said O'Dell. "The idea is to have as a component of the whole package people on the street who are taking charge of their own community so that it's not just a police state, with big brother and cameras watching."
While the Peacemakers say they are not officially affiliated with the Nation of Islam, the group is headed by Rasul Muhammad, a prominent Nation of Islam member and the son of former leader Elijah Muhammad, and its corporate offices are at the group's Miami mosque.
Muhammad told the Miami Herald that the Peacemakers not are a racist organization.
"We are not anti-Jewish people. We are not anti-Catholic people. We are not anti-white people. The whole Peacemakers project is being based on being anti-crime, anti-immorality.... Are they saying that they don't want peace?'' he told the Herald. (Peacemakers representatives did not return calls from FOXNews.com.)
But Rosenkranz said the city should have considered what happened when other cities experimented with programs in association with the Nation of Islam.
In 2005, police in New Orleans were forced to dropped a $15,000 police sensitivity training contract with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan following public outcry about the group's anti-Semitic reputation.
"While we appreciate the City of Miami's efforts to improve conditions in the Overtown area, we are concerned that it did not fully understand the nature of the organization that it chose to provide these services," said Rosenkranz.
City officials are defending their decision, saying they sent invitations to other community and faith-based groups to participate in the "ecumenical" program after residents and nightclub owners in the area asked for increased security.
O'Dell said the City of Miami put out an announcement asking for input and even directly approached some groups about patrolling the area.
"Other groups were at the meeting. Homeowners' groups, pastors, parents— anyone could come. I don't know why they didn't want to be a part of it," O'Dell said.
News of the Peacemakers hitting the streets met with mixed reaction in Overtown.
A local Baptist youth pastor who declined to give his name said this was the first he'd even heard of Peacemakers. But said he had "no faith" in the police and questioned any religious group — Muslim or otherwise — that would align itself with them.
But others welcomed any help at all, even from the Nation of Islam, as long as they agreed to respect people of other faiths.
"Man is not perfect and every religion has some defect. They're rising up young men for what God says is right," said a Methodist barber identifying himself as H. Payne. He would not comment on the group's ties to the Nation of Islam.
Anthony Stewman, a Baptist resident of the neighborhood, did, however.
"Sure, you're gonna make mistakes, but organizations need to be forgiven if we're going to work together to raise God's children," he said.
Rosenkranz said he's not swayed by those arguments. "The Anti-Defamation League strongly believes that there is never justification for racism, intolerance and anti-Semitism and remains concerned about the Nation of Islam's activities," he said.