In rich neighborhoods and poor ones, the burglars came and went with remarkable success. The iron bars that crisscrossed inner-city windows didn't stop them, nor did the single locks on swanky Eastside homes.
Then, in 1981, local police embraced a program called Neighborhood Watch, which preached nosiness as a virtue, and an alarmed public began to rally in its own defense.
Today, four years later, the results are striking.
Citywide, home burglaries are down from 8,154 in 1981 to 6,443 in 1984. Detailed crime data shows the improvement is impressive in neighborhoods throughout the city, especially in those most victimized in years past.
Affluent Naples Island, for example, has cut residential burglaries from 88 annually to 48 in three years, while upscale El Dorado Park Estates, cloistered on the Orange County border, has reduced its 110 home break-ins to 54 in 1984. Even the northern Long Beach Boulevard district, once dubbed the "combat zone" for high crime of all types, has sharply reduced its burglary rate.
"We started with about 300 or 400 Neighborhood Watch groups in 1981 and now we have about 2,500 out of the possible 4,000 that could be organized," said police Cmdr. Jerry Heath.
Naples, with its old cottages and new million-dollar homes, is a good example of how the problem finally hit home and how a close-knit community reacted to it, said Lee Ostendorf, a Neighborhood Watch block captain since 1982.
"After a while, when it either happens to you or someone on your block, you wake up and do something about it," said Ostendorf, a real estate agent who has lived in Naples for 13 years.
"We really question people we don't know," she said. "They may be somebody's guests, but if there's anything suspicious at all, we call each other and we call the police."
Simple solutions have been implemented, she said, like installing and using dead-bolt door locks and window locks, closing garage doors and trimming shrubbery so prowlers can be easily seen.
Such tactics have been adopted citywide since police aides and unpaid volunteers have knocked on doors to sign up neighborhood leaders, said Heath.
Data from 214 crime-reporting districts with more than a handful of homes shows that 72% experienced drops in residential burglary between 1981 and 1984. There were cuts in virtually every neighborhood in East Long Beach, including big reductions in Belmont Heights, Park Estates, Belmont Shore, and the university and El Dorado Park areas.
In West Long Beach, the poorer half of the city where most violent crime occurs, inroads were also made. Reductions were seen in the old Willmore City area, in a few central city neighborhoods and in the majority of North Long Beach districts.
Still, in both East and West Long Beach, some of the most effective anti-crime groups are not formally organized.
Few Neighborhood Watch signs can be seen among the middle-class tract homes of northeastern Long Beach, by far the most crime-free part of the city.
And in a section of the Wrigley District, where neat family homes border the high-crime areas just north of Pacific Coast Highway, there is no formal Neighborhood Watch. There is, however, a spirit of neighborly vigilance.
"We don't really belong to Neighborhood Watch, but we might as well because we all look out for each other," said Lauren Aderman, a classroom aide who lives in the 2300 block of Daisy Avenue.
Aderman resides in a crime-reporting district that had just 22 home burglaries in 1984. That two-by-six-block district is bounded by Hill Street, Magnolia Avenue, Burnett Street and the Los Angeles River.
Adjoining it to the southeast is a district one-third smaller but which had 78 residential burglaries, third highest in the city, in 1984.
Influence of Renters
"It's the influence of Pacific Coast Highway," said Heath. "That's a tough crime area and it's difficult to organize. There are a lot of apartments and the renters are highly mobile."
One recent afternoon, Aderman and her two children were chatting over their front fence with neighbor Carl Carlton, 70, a retired real estate agent.
"We always wave to each other and we call the police if we see strangers," she said. "And the police are real responsive."
Police caught a burglar in the act of breaking into her home four years ago, Aderman said, and another was arrested by officers recently after a break-in at a nearby house.
Carlton said he has installed a burglar alarm on a back door that is also secured with chains.
As the two talked with a visitor, another neighbor, Christy Mintz, pulled her car into a driveway. "Is there a problem?" she yelled as she crossed the street from the house where she lives with her husband, Michael.
Checks on Reporter
"We're real aware of each other," Mintz said.
Indeed, the caution of that group was demonstrated the next day, when Carlton called The Times to confirm that the visitor was who he said he was, not a burglar with a clever come-on.
Carlton said he had been taught as a World War II bomber pilot to "destroy the enemy before the enemy destroys you. And all of this goes along with that."