Delgado tenses as he approaches the battered front door and listens for movement inside the run-down row house at 3439 14th St. NW. He is wearing a gold badge on a chain around his neck identifying him as a D.C. government building inspector. He's also wearing a gray sweat shirt, beneath that a blue bulletproof vest, beneath that a T-shirt, and beneath that, resting against the bare skin of his chest and back, a blue cloth scapular of Saint Michael to protect him from evil. Just before he knocks on the door, Delgado says a soft, hurried prayer to himself: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."

Then he takes a deep breath and pounds hard with his fist. "Open the door!" he commands. When nobody responds, he shouts, "Open the door! . . . Open the [expletive] door!"

A hollow-eyed man in an old work jacket cracks the door and Delgado dashes past him to see several men running out the back. Delgado knows this wreckage of a building is an active crack house. A few legitimate tenants remain, but it has been invaded by squatters. He calls to D.C. Police Officer Medgar Webster, his escort and protector this April day, and they bound upstairs two steps at a time as Webster radios for backup.

"Everybody out of there! Everybody out!" Delgado yells as he hits the second floor. "What are you doing in here? Do you belong here?" All the water, electricity and gas have been cut off for nonpayment. While Delgado expected to find a few squatters, he is stunned to see 11 men and six women straggling out of the second and third floors of the house. Some of them are shabbily dressed crack and heroin addicts, several are middle-aged men in work clothes. Two younger men are wearing well-pressed black suits and shiny shoes.

Delgado opens the bathroom door and his body recoils at the stench. Human waste and wadded toilet paper overflow the dried-out commode. The rusted old bathtub has become the urinal. Delgado grimaces and slams the door. He heads down to the basement and confirms another suspicion: The squatters who have moved in here without paying rent have also illegally, and dangerously, turned the gas back on, using a large wrench and a length of flexible aluminum pipe. They have similarly stolen electricity, by rewiring the disconnected Pepco meter.

"Everybody take a seat down on the ground!" Delgado barks at the people filling the foyer. Five police cruisers and at least 10 cops have arrived, but the building inspector takes charge of the scene. "I am condemning this property. This building is getting boarded up," he announces in a deep voice. This statement is partly a bluff: Delgado knows it usually takes the government many months to board a building, unless the owner can be pressured to do it more quickly -- but they don't know that.

"You have a choice of sitting here, or finding another place real quick," he warns them, his voice rising. "Trust me! . . . If you stay here, at 3 or 4 in the morning when you are resting, we are gonna be [expletive] kicking the doors down!" Then he turns to the few tenants and demands, "How many days do you need to move out? How many hours?"

A blue Washington Gas truck pulls up, summoned by Delgado, who has a "hot" company phone number and authorization to get trucks quickly. Pepco, likewise, responds to Delgado's summons a few minutes later. With the utility trucks and police cruisers, the scene on 14th Street looks like a major civil disturbance. Actually it is only a building inspection, Delgado-style -- a multi-front assault that sends a clear signal to the entire neighborhood.

Minutes later, the building's owner arrives -- also summoned by Delgado's cell phone. Her name is Mary Watson, and she is 84 and walks with a cane. The building inspector confronts her on the front porch. "I have some bad news for you," he begins, telling her he is citing her for $1,500 worth of building and zoning code violations per day. But as that news sinks in, he dangles before her a way out: If she shuts the building down within 15 days, then no code violations, no fines.

As Watson ponders her options, Delgado walks inside and angrily tears down the blankets, plywood and metal sheeting that the squatters have put over the front windows. He surveys the scene disgustedly. "The government knew about this for two years, and nothing happened."

Four days later, Delgado returns to find all the tenants and squatters gone, piles of junk on the front porch, and Watson sitting in a Lincoln Continental watching two workmen board up the building with thick plywood. Delgado's dark, thick mustache arches into a broad, satisfied smile.

James Delgado is one of 32 building inspectors who work for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. He is 48 and lives in the city with his wife, two daughters and an old basset hound named Babygirl. He is a slender man of 150 pounds and a 31-inch waist. He is trained in boxing, tae kwon do and aikido, all of which he has somewhat reluctantly employed in self-defense during his decade as the city's most unusual building inspector. He has been seriously assaulted five times, threatened with violence countless times, sued several times, and chewed out by some superiors because he has been the subject of more complaints than any of his colleagues -- even though charges against him have been consistently ruled unfounded. One lawsuit was settled out of court; the others were dismissed.

All this because Delgado has chosen to put himself on the cutting edge of the movement known as "community policing." The concept is to unite communities -- citizens' groups, various government agencies and police -- in a coordinated attack on quality-of-life problems from broken windows, graffiti and vandalism to the abandoned cars, illegal rooming houses and vacant buildings that become havens for drug trafficking and other serious crimes.

In Washington, community policing efforts have usually failed because of poor staffing and overall decay within the police department, as well as the chronic ineptitude of other city agencies. Over the past decade, however, no public servant in Washington arguably has done more than Delgado to put crack houses out of business, stop the sale of drug paraphernalia from corner stores, close down illegal "chop shop" garages, shut down prostitution operations and after-hours nightclubs, and eliminate countless other public nuisances that plague many of the city's poor and middle-class precincts.

"If you ask people and ask the police, they will tell you that Delgado should be cloned," says D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose, who chairs the committee overseeing his agency, DCRA, and who has witnessed some of Delgado's exploits in her Capitol Hill ward. "In the eyes of the community, if you just turned Delgado loose in your neighborhood for a month, you could clean it up."

Indeed, Delgado's personnel file is filled with more than 40 letters of commendation from government agencies and citizens groups. The Justice Department cited him for "generous contributions and dedicated service." The Metropolitan Police honored his "exceptional commitment and outstanding service." Child Protective Services officials commended him for saving children from harm and asked DCRA to lend them Delgado. The Humane Society praised him for alerting them to animal abuse cases. In North Lincoln Park, the neighborhood association proclaimed him a "Bona Fide Local Hero." Around Union Station, two Advisory Neighborhood Commissions joined to declare he had "done more to improve public safety and quality of life in our neighborhood in the past months than anyone can remember."

There are testimonials, too, from just plain people who said that until Delgado, government officials had ignored their previous pleas for help. "He has reinstilled my faith in mankind that there are people who care," said Stephen Burgess, a Northwest tenant who couldn't get heat from his landlord until Delgado intervened. "I can only wish you had more people who would take their jobs as seriously," wrote Georgetown businessman James Harper. And when Delgado closed a crack house in Southeast and made sure the evicted occupants were relocated, a neighbor, William James, wrote: "As a citizen of the District, I can only comment -- Thank God Mr. Delgado works for the city and thank God he was able to help us."

But those same personnel files contain no promotions, honors, awards, bonuses or merit raises from DCRA. Because of his unorthodox tactics, Delgado is a pariah within his own agency, Ambrose says. She criticizes DCRA for what she says is its lethargy in cleaning up nuisance properties and urges officials to make Delgado a model. Instead, his work has been tolerated, but not supported. His immediate boss, chief building inspector Vincent Ford, says that over the years higher-ups in government have wrongly labeled Delgado a "cowboy" who makes reckless and possibly illegal moves. Such criticism, Ford says, comes primarily from people who don't understand what Delgado does.

"I call him my jungle fighter. He goes where nobody else goes," says Ford, who has consistently rated Delgado's performance as outstanding. Having Delgado, he says, is "almost like having a strike force." Ford, a 16-year DCRA veteran, and Ambrose believe Delgado's speed and effectiveness have bred resentment among bureaucrats who feel threatened by his success. DCRA has had a large staff of housing inspectors whose jurisdiction overlaps with Delgado's but who are generally not noted for their vigilance. Says Ambrose, "They don't want to be judged by the standard Delgado sets in hustle and commitment."

Delgado's methods have also earned him his share of enemies outside his agency. "I think he is a danger. I don't think he should be employed by the city," says Donald Schlemmer, a lawyer who represented a Capitol Hill restaurant owner who accused Delgado of assault in a 1992 dispute over a sign. He characterizes Delgado's "super-hyper-aggressive" style as an "abuse of authority."

That same aggressiveness, though, is welcomed in many crime-plagued neighborhoods, and has caused the word to spread among community activists: When you have a problem, don't call the government, call Delgado.

The District is pockmarked by at least 1,200 "nuisance" properties that are abandoned or dilapidated, making them ideal breeding grounds for crime. And as soon as one drug house is shut down, another inevitably sprouts up. Closing these places is a never-ending task that others might find exhausting and frustrating; Delgado embraces it with a messianic fervor because he believes his actions bring hope to neighborhoods where there is usually despair.

"I truly believe God has granted me this mission," Delgado says. "I can't be hurt, unless I get too big for my britches. Sometimes I get cocky, but I believe I have an envelope of spiritual protection . . . To live God's life is to seek peace. But sometimes people who do evil will not allow that. So a good spirit must be inclined to be a warrior. I believe my spirit is a warrior spirit."

Delgado creatively pushes the outer limits of law and regulations -- using sometimes novel interpretations essentially to harass people who have been breaking the law with impunity. Example: He delivered a stern lecture and then wrote a $500 ticket to a family whose son was selling heroin from a Northwest apartment. The code violation: conducting commercial activity in a residential zone without a home-business permit. The fine could've been challenged and probably overturned; instead it prompted the parents to evict the son. So Delgado tore up the ticket.

Delgado talks street talk, in English and Spanish. He makes threats, from huge fines to arrest to jail. Sometimes the threats are real; sometimes he is bluffing. But most people don't want to take the chance. Such unusual tactics and an explosive delivery are Delgado's trademarks. "When I yell and scream at someone, I feel like I am screaming for the people in the community who want a stop to their personal misery," says Delgado, who grew up in a miserable housing project in New York's Spanish Harlem. "You yell and scream at the crack addicts who are abusing the community. You are the voice of that community, the voice of the victims who can't say it themselves. Someone is finally sticking up for them. I call it holy anger."

But Delgado probably will not be around much longer. He plans to retire from government next year -- unless, in his view, the administration of Washington's new mayor, Anthony Williams, becomes more serious about community policing. Delgado loves his adrenalized role as an avenging angel, and he relishes the gratitude he gets from the community he serves. But if the city is not really serious about doing the job the right way, he says, there's nothing to keep him from an early retirement.

Delgado flashes his badge and taps his huge black flashlight on the glass front door of Bag's Billiards, a neighborhood pool hall in far Northeast that has been the source of complaints about drug activity. It is 10:30 on a Thursday night and the door is locked, but Delgado sees five men inside, standing around a pool table, rolling dice, with bottles and plastic cups of booze on the table. He knows he's got them, on a liquor violation, if not more.

"Building inspector. I need to talk to you," he tells the old man who comes to the door.

Building inspectors have the right to enter any building -- but owners also have the right to say no and make them get a warrant. Delgado never explicitly asks permission to come in; rather he simply and forcefully declares his need to. If someone should say no, which is very rare, Delgado expresses his displeasure and reluctantly offers to go get a warrant. Remarkably, though, he has never had to do that.

This night is no different. Owner Arthur Coleman, age 60, a tall and tired gray-haired man wearing a black felt hat, lets Delgado inside the pool hall, accompanied by his police escort, Officer John Jackson. Inside, the four other men have already scattered and made a futile attempt to hide the evidence.

"Gentlemen, drinking in an unlicensed establishment is a $1,000 fine," Delgado says in his deepest voice as he puts on latex gloves to begin his inspection. (The city will not provide gloves, so he gets them from his brother who works in a garage.) Delgado has already spotted where the men stashed the booze. He ducks under the pool tables, and shines his flashlight behind several chairs and vending machines, emerging with bottles of champagne, brandy and beer.

As he looks through the cluttered back room, Delgado gives Coleman more bad news. "When you have a pool hall, you must have two means of egress," he says, pointing to the rear. "That is a fire exit door, that cannot be locked or blocked like that."

"This is harassment," Coleman mutters. "You are a tough man."

"No, I'm not, sir. I'm just doing my job," Delgado says. "The mayor and the control board have said we have to do our jobs, and if I don't do mine, I gotta find somebody else to feed my kids."

The fines are now up to $1,500, but Delgado is not finished.

"Are you feeling hungry?" he asks the police officer. This is a prearranged signal Delgado uses when he has seen illegal drugs during an inspection. In the pool hall's back room, in an open carton near the door, Delgado has spotted a large plastic baggie filled with marijuana. Officer Jackson ducks into the back room and after a long minute, emerges with the bag, which he plops on the pool table.

"One of you is going to jail tonight," Delgado declares gravely, his eyes sweeping the room. All five men look stunned and they stare at one another, but for several more long minutes, nobody speaks.

"It's impossible. It's impossible," Coleman says, telling Delgado that many people come in and out of the pool hall and somebody must have stashed the drugs there.

It's tough, Delgado says, but if Coleman owns the pool hall, he owns the dope -- unless he can convince the police otherwise. Coleman is exasperated, repeating again and again that he has no idea. The standoff continues, with all the men professing ignorance.

Delgado lays it on thick: He points out that the front of Bag's Billiards has a large sign for which it lacks a permit (as do most city businesses) and also has apparently had recent electrical work done without a permit. The fines theoretically are now up to $2,500 and Coleman slumps in his chair with a dazed expression and watery eyes beneath his hat. He tells Delgado the pool hall doesn't even make money.

Now Delgado spots a stray electrical wire hanging from the dropped ceiling. He stands on a chair and peers through a gap in the ceiling tiles to spot an electric scale of the kind used to weigh drugs. He calls Jackson over. Jackson takes out his Miranda card and begins to read Coleman and the other men their rights. Then Delgado has a lengthy private discussion with Jackson and several other cops who have arrived.

Delgado crouches down and gets up very close to the slumping Coleman as he says this: "Mr. Coleman, we are here because of complaints about this establishment from the community. Complaints about this establishment, not about you. The community wants this place closed." He lets the words sink in before continuing.

"Mr. Coleman, if you, in writing, now surrender your license and close for 30 days, if you surrender it and close your doors, that should take care of this."

The police could readily arrest Coleman. But it is highly doubtful he would be convicted for personally possessing drugs that were found on his premises. Yet he is confronting the prospect of spending a night in jail and possibly paying thousands between Delgado's fines and legal fees.

Coleman seems paralyzed. Then he asks Delgado whether closing will definitely keep him out of jail. Delgado tells him he'll talk to the police. Finally Coleman says, "Let's go ahead and close it."

Delgado takes out his camera and begins to photograph the drugs, booze, dice and electric scale now displayed on the pool table.

Coleman hunches over the table and starts writing on lined paper: "I Arthur Coleman are surrender my licsensin . . . because of the community so I don't hurt it. Willing to close, for better condition so I can help the community." Coleman shows this to Delgado, who tells him he must be certain he is doing this voluntarily. Coleman adds the sentences, "I do this of my own free will. I was not made to do so," and signs "Arthur S. Coleman." He hands Delgado his business license.

It is after midnight when Delgado asks him, "Mr. Coleman, are you a religious man?"

"Yes, very religious."

"Well, tonight I think you should thank someone."

Coleman ponders his situation, repeats that he wasn't making much money anyway, and tells Delgado wearily, "You all did me a favor."

Delgado is standing at a chalkboard in a Judiciary Square conference room, drawing a diagram to illustrate his investigative methods and enforcement techniques. He's wearing old bluejeans and nervously tapping a leather boot. His audience is two top representatives of Mayor Williams in their dark business suits.

"The beauty of this is that I discovered a way to use the building code, the zoning code, the business codes to help combat crime," Delgado says with a characteristic flourish of ego. "It is like the old Al Capone case: They couldn't bust him, but they got him on tax evasion."

Lecturing at the mayor's office gives Delgado an ironic sense of satisfaction because he worked here almost half a lifetime ago, under very different circumstances. It was in the 1980s, when the office was occupied by Marion Barry, and Jim Delgado was an idealistic recent college grad, making his way up from being a high school dropout.

He'd had a rough childhood, particularly after the divorce of his parents, who were poor immigrants from Puerto Rico. One of 10 siblings, he was scarred in his youth by physical abuse, a brother's death from heroin, a sister's traumatic teenage pregnancy. His family depended on welfare and lived in a crowded apartment where pipes leaked, heating failed, ceilings fell and rats sometimes swam up in the toilets.

Delgado was a smart kid, and he managed to escape his grim surroundings thanks to an aunt who invited him to live with her in Michigan. He got his high school equivalency degree, and he cried the day he was accepted at a community college. He made some money as a truck driver and factory worker, and wanted to become a cop or even a lawyer. He transferred to Michigan State University and there he met some charismatic, politically radical professors and took a college course that changed his life. It was called "The Ghetto."

He was intrigued by a leftist analysis of political power and civil rights. Reading the book Manchild in the Promised Land galvanized him with the belief that poor and working people could change their lives for the better, particularly if government could be made to really work in their interest.

When Delgado took a college internship in 1980 with the D.C. government, he was thrilled to find himself working for Barry and his top aide, Ivanhoe Donaldson, both well-known politicos and veterans of the civil rights struggle. Delgado rose quickly to become a government operations analyst, but it was not long before he ran into trouble. His dogged style of advocacy and relentless questioning of authority clashed with the agenda of reelecting the mayor, and Delgado was banished to DCRA in 1986.

"Here is a man who was exiled to Siberia, and he went to Siberia and made it a better place," says Sandy McCall, a deputy chief of staff for Mayor Williams, who arranged Delgado's Judiciary Square presentation as part of the new mayor's exploration of crime issues.

Williams and Police Chief Charles Ramsey have advocated community policing as a way to reduce crime and help revitalize neighborhoods. The city, however, has yet to commit adequate resources. Delgado has submitted written proposals to various branches of government to expand the kind of work he does, cut through bureaucratic roadblocks, and create a "strategic enforcement" unit that would have the teeth, and even the guns, to really do the job.

Today, Delgado speaks nearly nonstop for 75 minutes, explaining how he developed his symbiotic relationship between building inspection and crime fighting. "No single unit in government has a holistic approach. None. I designed it," he says. It began around 1990, he says, when he was threatened during an inspection of an illegal junkyard in Mount Pleasant and asked for police protection. Those cops then asked if his enforcement power could help them close a nearby unlicensed chop shop dealing in stolen auto parts. When this succeeded, they asked him to hit an unlicensed pool hall, where Delgado spotted stolen computers and police made a major arrest.

The idea swiftly spread among police, who started requesting that the brash inspector team up routinely with them. After several run-ins with armed felons, the cops gave him a bulletproof vest -- DCRA had refused as a matter of policy. In recent years, his boss has required him to take police escorts on all his difficult inspections for his own protection.

As Delgado finishes his presentation, Monty Wilkinson, the mayor's special assistant on crime issues, questions whether police are using Delgado as cover to gain entry and circumvent legal requirements for search warrants. Delgado explains that this argument was used in federal court, unsuccessfully, to try to invalidate seizures that were incidental to his building inspections. "There is a way not to violate rights, and yet open up miraculous possibilities" for law enforcement because contraband is sometimes spotted in plain view, Delgado says. "You go into a property to address the regulatory violations, and anything else that comes up is a godsend."

In groceries and liquor stores, for example, Delgado says he enters because he has the right to check business licenses and to see whether cigarettes have valid D.C. tax stamps. In the process, he frequently finds drug paraphernalia for sale, such as tiny plastic jewelry bags used in the crack trade. Such bags are now illegal under a 1997 city law for which Delgado lobbied.

Wilkinson asks, "Are you ever denied entry? Aren't there things outside your jurisdiction?"

"The regulatory code book is pretty thick," Delgado says, smiling. ". . . But no, I do not have absolute right of entry. You have to be respectful. The more humble and the more apologetic you are -- `Gee, I'm really sorry to be bothering you' -- the more room you get from people. You have to know how to handle yourself."

His feet tapping with nervous energy, Delgado ends by urging the Williams administration to be bold. "If you don't tackle this, you are just reactive. My theory is, why wait to be called? I dispatch myself, I don't wait to be dispatched," he says. "We are not talking about a building, we are striking it."

"I've had bona fide death threats" says Delgado, who adds that he is a "hot commodity" in certain high-crime neighborhoods. "I go out all hours of the night. Do I get paid for that? No. If I photograph, I'm using my own camera. If I use my cell phone, does the government pay me? No." (Delgado spent more than $3,000 on automobile, cell phone and photography expenses, according to his 1998 tax return, out of a salary of $51,000. DCRA recently gave him a camera and announced plans to issue cell phones.)

Delgado pauses before wrapping up his pitch. "If you find merit in this, I will come back and talk to you again about it . . . Or if you want to come out with me, I will show you," he says. Then, he concludes: "If this government doesn't wisen up, to save kids, to help the neighborhoods, it's really a loss."

On a sunny spring morning, Delgado is part of an interagency team inspecting shops along Georgia Avenue and Seventh Street NW as part of a mayoral initiative to promote cleanup and development of inner-city businesses. One businessman, Julius Bell, is not happy to see the inspector. Delgado has paid several visits here in the last six months to warn Bell against setting up an outdoor barbecue on the sidewalk in front of his business. Now, things turn ugly.

"I know you. You're not such a big guy now -- without your police friends," Bell says accusingly as Delgado enters his carryout, the Original Buffalo Wing House on Seventh Street. "Can I see some ID?" Bell demands. As Delgado goes to his wallet, Bell says, "You don't need to be cussing us out."

"I'm not cussing you out," Delgado says.

The two men face each other near the doorway. An argument erupts over Delgado's language and behavior during his past visits.

"You disrespected me," says Bell, a burly man in his thirties. "Saying, `Can't you understand English?' Sitting there on the street in the car with a white cop, yelling at me! Saying you are tired of my [expletive]! Well, you are not talking so big now, without the police."

Delgado is saying he never cursed at him, and Bell is getting agitated: "You are not with the po-lice today, so I won't kiss your ass this time. You think we're supposed to kiss your ass. Show me some respect! Calling me a mother [expletive]!"

"I never called you a [expletive]!" Delgado retorts.

"I'm sick of this! You don't talk to us out of respect!" Bell yells.

Delgado asks to see Bell's certificate of occupancy.

"You're in my space!" Bell shouts.

"You're in my space!"

Delgado reaches for the certificate, and Bell snatches it back, and their wrists bounce off each other. They appear near blows. Delgado, having been assaulted several times before, tenses up. But the assault is only verbal: "When you are out with your white cop friends, you talk like you are [expletive] God. You cuss us out!"

Delgado is shaking his head. "Are you finished?" he asks.

This visit was supposed to be only for issuing warnings. But by the time it is over, Delgado has called the police for backup, and has written out three $500 citations to Bell, for a sign without a permit, recent electrical work without a permit, and garbage cans stored on government property adjacent to Bell's place.

The men part bitterly, Bell saying he will come to DCRA headquarters to complain. Delgado tells him he'd welcome the visit.

Several days later, both men are still bristling over the incident. Bell says he lost his temper because Delgado "cannot just come into the neighborhood talking down to people." He acknowledges that Delgado had warned him about his outdoor grill and was considerate in not ticketing him for it. But he says Delgado was nonetheless disrespectful. "I think he is a bully. I think he is abusing his badge and intimidating people."

Delgado admits he was particularly irritated at Bell months ago for failing to heed repeated warnings, but he is adamant in denying he cursed him. "How many times do I gotta tell you? Don't you understand? You can't afford my fines!" is Delgado's recollection of what he told Bell, hoping to avoid writing him a ticket for the illegal outdoor grill. Delgado, who often travels with black and Hispanic cops, also says that in the racially charged environment of the city, he is careful to speak to all people with respect.

Two weeks later, Bell says he has gone to DCRA to appeal the citations but they have no record of the tickets. Delgado, like other inspectors, often uses the citations as bargaining chips, hoping to get building owners to comply voluntarily rather than face fines. Delgado says he has not yet submitted the tickets for processing. He sounds ready for a truce. "I am considering calling him and seeing whether we can start over," Delgado says. "I can tear up the ticket."

The three young prostitutes are from the Dominican Republic by way of New York City. One is slender with a tattooed heart on her left breast, another wears a shiny black leather two-piece that is much too tight, and the third is a husky woman wearing little more than an ill-fitting white thong. They are sitting at a kitchen table in a basement apartment on Park Road in Mount Pleasant and all are wearing disgusted expressions. Delgado is about to ruin a profitable Wednesday evening.

He has entered the 20-unit brick building through an unlocked side door to the basement. Business is so brisk tonight that eight men are sitting on three couches, waiting, and the door to the apartment stands wide open. "How are you this evening?" Delgado says casually, in Spanish, as he walks in. A few steps behind him are the police.

Suddenly, the apartment erupts in commotion, as the men offer explanations to the police, in Spanish and English. "I'm here with a friend . . . I'm just waiting for somebody . . . This is my first time here . . . I don't know nothing about that . . ."

But this is not a police raid and nobody is arrested, nobody charged with prostitution or soliciting. Rather, this is a zoning enforcement. The building inspector knows he cannot write tickets for prostitution -- but he can cite for unauthorized commercial activity. So, after the police frisk the men for weapons and check for criminal records, Delgado asks each of them a question: Are you here for a massage or for prostitution? Hesitant, and with puzzled expressions, several men say massage. Then, in Spanish, Delgado asks the others. Is this place una casa para masaje or una casa de mujeres? Masaje, comes the answer, masaje.

After an intense private chat with Delgado, Alejandro, a 31-year-old Salvadoran, goes into the kitchen, bends over the trash can and fishes out a fat wad of bills he just ditched. Wrapped inside a $100 bill is a roll of tens, twenties and fifties totaling $760. Delgado learns from the women that they charge $30, but they only keep half and they don't handle the cash. Instead, customers get yellow theater tickets from Alejandro. He manages the money but is not their pimp, who stays away from the apartment, according to the women.

Delgado spreads out Alejandro's stash on the couch, takes a photograph of the money and picks up the large roll of tickets. Then he orders all the men to stand up together for a group photo. "Oh no, man!" exclaims one thirtyish customer, who says he is married. Delgado calms them by saying they can cover their faces if they wish, which they all do as he snaps several pictures.

The building inspector feels he now has enough evidence for a zoning violation case. He doesn't even attempt to deal with the legal morass of proving prostitution. Rather, he will write up the citations for an illegal massage parlor operating in a residential zone without a certificate of occupancy and without a commercial license. He can make a case for fines of at least $1,000 against the building owner, but more importantly, he has disrupted tonight's operation and he may be able to persuade the owner to evict the offending commercial tenant. The three women are allowed to dress and leave with their own money. Alejandro's stash, though, is considered to be abandoned money, and is taken by the police to be turned over to the city treasury as found property.

Delgado's been through all this before. In fact, he busted the same apartment months ago after neighbors complained about the traffic of prostitutes and their customers in and out of the apartment house, one of some 20 brothels Delgado has hit in the community.

"There's just too much of it, and it has to stop," he says. "People don't want this in their neighborhood. They don't want to raise their kids in this environment." Chief Ramsey has said he wants to crack down on prostitution, but the police can't be everywhere and they can't make arrests without a lengthy investigation. "But I have a zoning violation," Delgado says, smiling. "It is a business, and this is a residential zone."

Delgado realizes that this "massage parlor" will probably reopen somewhere else tomorrow, as will the crack houses and chop shops. But he contends it is still worth the effort, day after day. "The question is whether we allow drug havens to flourish . . . or prostitution," he says. "I can't protect it and patrol it, 24-7, but I can stop it from flourishing. I can make it difficult to do business."

"You haven't solved the deeper problems," he acknowledges, "but somebody on that block is gonna sleep a little bit better tonight. And to me, that's worth it."

A workday for Inspector Delgado usually is a marathon venture into a largely hidden world where there is always crime, drug abuse, poverty and squalor, but also some small measure of progress and hope.

This April morning begins at 9, when Delgado makes the first hit among 13 stops in the next 14 hours. It's a neighborhood complaint at 14th and W in Southeast about a guy who takes up valuable parking spots because he is working on an assortment of cars and trucks -- plus overnight he also leaves his food-vending van with two fierce Akitas chained inside for security. This is quick work: Delgado calls people he knows in the police and the Humane Society. The Virginia license tags turn out to be stolen; the animal control officers break into the van to free the dogs, who have defecated and urinated inside; and the police have the vehicle towed.

Not all problems are so neatly solved in an hour. At other stops, Delgado is frustrated because nobody is home and he can't get access. As he drives past vacant buildings and littered alleys, he points out landmarks of lengthy past struggles. In Columbia Heights are the boarded-up rooming houses once owned by Kingsley Anyanwutaku, a slum landlord whom Delgado ferociously pursued for two years after learning that children took sick in his vermin-infested properties. In 1995, Anyanwutaku pleaded guilty to 1,318 building and housing code violations and, thanks in large part to Delgado's agitation, was sentenced to nearly six years in prison, the first District landlord prosecuted criminally in more than a decade.

In Northeast, Delgado drives by properties owned by Franklin Lamb, a landlord against whom Delgado testified 10 days earlier in Superior Court. Delgado was the key witness, describing dangerous and unsanitary living conditions in Lamb's properties in a weeklong jury trial. The result: a $750,000 punitive damage verdict against the landlord.

Delgado acknowledges that he gets personally involved in cases, sometimes too involved. Ford, his boss, will occasionally ground him for a day or two if he thinks Delgado needs a rest. But Delgado says he will not back off from his aggressive style. "I believe when people are suffering, you don't send a notice. You bring resolution as quickly as you can," he says. "By me demonstrating a show of force says that I mean business, and it solves problems. Why would we hesitate to use such enforcement tactics?"

Council member Ambrose agrees, and even endorses a limited form of harassment as practiced by Delgado. "I say to people that some landlords and business people are harassing the neighborhood, and if we are harassing them, within the law, to be a good neighbor, then I don't have a problem with that," Ambrose says.

This day, Delgado will hit crack houses, chop shops and rundown rooming houses, and he will revisit places he is monitoring, including a 14-unit apartment house on Marietta Place in Northwest that has been neglected for so long that droves of pigeons have taken over the top floor and destroyed rooms with pigeon droppings that permeate the air throughout the largely vacant three-story building.

A week earlier, Delgado threatened the owner, Formant Investments, with multiple fines and with a civil lawsuit by Operation Crackdown, a volunteer lawyers' group with whom Delgado often works to legally coerce owners into fixing their property. Within five days of that visit, the owner of Marietta Place did more cleanup than had been done in years, according to the few remaining tenants.

"I wish I'd known about you 10 years ago," says longtime tenant Paul Clemencia, a 45-year-old plumber, when he meets Delgado. Clemencia goes inside his apartment and emerges with a thick stack of photographs and paper copies of past code violations written against the owner. Clemencia, who lives here with his teenage son, tells Delgado that he has been calling DCRA and other agencies for 10 years. Housing inspectors came and went, he says, but never got action. "They'd put up a notice and then they leave," he says. "I'll be honest with you, I thought those people were being paid off."

Delgado shakes his head. "I can't explain what the inspectors did 10 years ago," he says. Then he adds, "I am really sorry you had to live like this."

As he walks away, Delgado says it is embarrassing to hear stories like that about city agencies, including his own. "Why does it have to be me, coming in and yelling" that gets things done?

Inevitably he comes back around to the question of whether it is time for him to quit: "My dilemma is leaving government. I wonder what is going to happen . . . How many families have to be locked in their house because they can't use their own back yards? Because they can't walk in safety on their own street. Can't go outside without finding needles and drug paraphernalia. Can't send their kids out safely on their own street. This is real suffering. People go to church and pray the problem will go away. Well, we can't just send notices, we have to attack it. It is a [expletive] war in the streets. The criminal says, `You can't touch me, I'm inside a building' . . . But we can touch them."

Having a new city administration, with a new mayor and police chief who say they are committed to solving some of these problems, has given him pause. "The only reason I would stay," he says, "is if they cared enough about this city to say: `This is really a viable solution for poor communities and we want a task force of this type' . . . If they cared enough to do that, I would be glad to stay."

Later that day, at a dilapidated row house on Keefer Place NW, Delgado talks roughly to a tattered woman who sneaked into a building that is being repossessed. The woman's wrists, arms and neck are scarred with needle marks. She is wearing old dungarees, and she is living with no water, no utilities. She says her name is Cheryl, but she has IDs with two different names. She gets into a prolonged shouting match with Delgado and a cop who keep telling her that she is a squatter and must move out or go to jail.

The argument ebbs and flares, and Delgado keeps ragging her for nearly half an hour, until the woman seems worn out. Delgado takes her out to the back porch and the two of them stand there alone. Then he speaks to her in a softer voice and, very slowly, he says: "Find a ministry. Seek religious help. Find physical help . . . And listen . . . Look in the mirror. Look in the mirror and think of the little girl who had big dreams. You stole that little girl's dreams . . . You stole her dreams. You are gonna look in the mirror, and your mission is to give her back her life. You gotta look for that little girl because she is still there somewhere."

The woman is silent for what seems a long time. She brings her hand to her mouth. "Delgado, thank you," she says. "Thank you."

"Okay, sweetheart," he says.

Then she walks out of the house with her clothes in a gray plastic bag, looking for someplace else to go.

Peter Perl is a staff writer for the Magazine.

CAPTION: James Delgado reconnoiters an alley, top, to check out a sanitation complaint in a Northwest building. Left, inside a roach-infested apartment, he photographs evidence to docu-ment code violations.

CAPTION: Clockwise from right, Delgado in a pigeon-infested apartment house on Marietta Place NW; with Mary Watson, owner of a rundown row house on 14th Street NW; quizzing a prostitute in a Mount Pleasant massage parlor.

CAPTION: Clockwise from near right, telling a squatter she must vacate a Keefer Place NW house; in a Petworth grocery; at a North-west chop shop; in an Adams-Morgan yard where chickens were kept for sacrifice. On the grill: a ram's head.