Mike O’Brien began sleeping in his Harley-Davidson shop with a few of his favorite handguns several months ago. That was about the time Olivia Herrera planted a shield of prickly pear around the front windows of her home. About the time Andy Andrews, longtime resident and neighborhood leader, loaded up a van and moved to Oregon.
This all happened sometime after administrators installed a bulletproof window and a six-foot reinforced concrete wall at the Long Beach Day Nursery. Meanwhile, Long Beach Memorial Medical Center beefed up its security system: Make a wrong move and, bam, thick glass doors slam together, sealing off the emergency room, and boom, a corrugated metal door drops from the ceiling, protecting a nurses’ station.
It doesn’t matter that Long Beach police statistics show crime has gone down in the last 18 months, or that in 1992, the number of violent crimes dipped to its lowest point in four years. It doesn’t matter that more officers are patrolling the street than at any time in the department’s history.
There is an overwhelming sense among many residents that Long Beach has become a more dangerous place. Fear of crime is creeping across the city, changing the way people live. In neighborhood after neighborhood, people are taking new precautions. Some are buying guns, some are putting up security bars, but many say they are simply on guard more than ever before: locking car doors, leaving purses at home, viewing strangers with suspicion.
“Statistics are just numbers to people who are afraid,” said Jenny Oropeza, a Long Beach Unified School District board member who moved from her central area home after a stray bullet pierced the wall and whizzed by the spot where her husband usually watches TV. Now they live in a fourth-floor condominium in a security building downtown.
Listen to what’s being said at community and City Council meetings: “Crime is out of control in the city.” “Hire more police officers.” “Crack down on panhandlers.” “Clean up the graffiti.” “Hire more code-enforcement officers.”
“Crime is the No. 1 problem in the city,” says Mayor Ernie Kell.
A petition drive is making its way around town that would force the City Council to hire police without charging taxpayers more. Another petition demands that the council allow police to “take any means necessary” to clean up crime.
“People don’t feel safe in Long Beach,” said Marc Coleman, president of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, the city’s largest community-action group. “They don’t feel safe in downtown. They don’t feel safe in Belmont Heights. They don’t feel safe on the peninsula. They don’t feel safe on the east side. The general perception is that the gang problem is out of control, and the police and the city can’t do anything about it.”
Not everyone believes that their neighborhoods have become more dangerous or that things are out of control. In some parts of the city, particularly the east side, there are homes and apartments with no bars on the windows, no heavy black security doors, where dogs are bought as pets and not protection.
“Like Los Angeles, (Long Beach) has its good spots and its bad spots,” said community activist Roberto Uranga. “There are neighborhoods where people share sugar and drink coffee together, and there are areas where people have bars on their windows and don’t walk out at night.”
The majority of crimes, particularly violent ones, occur in the central area, the northern parts of town and the neighborhoods west of the Long Beach Freeway. Not surprisingly, the most violent zones are also the most congested. Using Redondo Avenue as a border, slightly more than 70% of the city’s residents live in the city’s western half. Much of this area’s growth is of recent vintage: a whopping 94% of the city’s population increase in the 1980s occurred in the western portion.
Most city leaders, including the chief of police, agree that parts of Long Beach are not as safe as they were five years ago. But they argue that, overall, Long Beach is certainly no worse off than any other big city.
The fact of the matter, city leaders note, is that society has become more violent.
Tourists are being killed in Florida. Madmen load automatic weapons and open fire in office buildings. Even Portland, Ore., seen by many Californias as a safe haven to the north, had more incidents of violent crime than Long Beach did last year.
“I think Long Beach is as safe as any place in Southern California,” said City Manager James C. Hankla. “I think horrible crimes can be and are committed in every city no matter where it is in this basin. Is there something unique about Long Beach which makes it more amenable to criminals practicing their craft? No.”
As Police Chief William C. Ellis sees it, “it all goes back to perception.”
“If you live on a block somewhere,” Ellis said, “and statistically you may have absolutely no criminal activity and nothing ever happens on your block that threatens you in an actual sense, but you perceive that the people who drive down your street are criminals and the people standing in front of their houses on your block are a threat, then your block is not safe.”
It is not merely acts of violence that unnerve people and cause them to think of leaving their homes, or buying a gun, or joining a neighborhood group. It is also graffiti. It is how many homeless people they see a day. How much trash they see in the gutters and how pathetic Long Beach Boulevard, the namesake of the city, looks with its boarded up automobile showrooms and weed-filled lots. For some, it’s simply the unknowns presented when a person of a different color or culture moves in down the street.
And, said Hankla, “It’s all tangled up in the economy and people out of work and the general feeling that things are getting worse and not better.”
In the last five years, Long Beach has been dealt blow after blow. The Naval station is closing. The massive Disney project deal many city officials heralded as savior of the city fell through, McDonnell Douglas has shed about 20,000 employees. Even the Spruce Goose is gone, leaving behind the massive white dome that sits off the coast like an overturned teacup.
“Here in Long Beach we have had downers on top of downers,” said Councilman Warren Harwood. “People have become disheartened by the continuing bad news and it has had a cumulative effect.”
Some also say that the media contribute to the perception that things are worse than they are. The mayhem that dominates television news and the brutal crime stories on the front page make people more aware and more afraid, they say.
Some argue that it is not society, the media or individual fears that fuel the perception that Long Beach is a more dangerous place. Instead, it is the increasing brutality and randomness of crime. Through mid-August, police reported 137 carjackings in the city, an average of one every two days.
“What’s happening is that the single incidents are more violent,” said Pastor James Norman, the chaplain of the Long Beach Police Department and a reserve officer. "(Criminals) can walk up to you and take your keys, your telephone, your car, your life. And these days, even if you give them your keys, they are likely to take your life anyway.”
On Memorial Day, a young man was riding his bicycle in Belmont Shore, a place where the biggest concern typically is finding a place to park. He was stopped by two teen-agers who police say wanted his bike. They shot and killed him and left the bike behind.
Just a couple of months ago at El Dorado Park, where families picnic on weekends, police say a fistfight turned into a gun battle between gangs. At least 50 shots were fired, four people were injured, park visitors terrorized. And all because some guy let a girl cut in front of him in the barbecue line.
Last month, a police officer sitting in his squad car making a report was shot three times, once in the head. He’s still in the hospital. A week later, police say a couple of high school students who wanted a ride to school walked up to crossing guard Katherine Tucker while she sat in her car reading the paper, waiting to help children cross the street. Police say the carjacking turned deadly--the guard was fatally shot in the head. Her assailants then drove to a nearby alley, put her body in the trunk and went to class, police say.
These crimes, some committed by boys not even old enough to shave, sickened residents. The killing of bicyclist William Shadden jarred Belmont Shore, which hadn’t experienced a murder for more than a decade. The shootings of crossing guard Tucker and Officer Abel Dominguez prompted howls of outrage.
“What shakes this community most is the violent nature of youth,” said City Councilman Alan S. Lowenthal. “They don’t follow society’s standards. Crossing guards get shot. If they want a bike, they follow someone and shoot.”
But the turning point for many in Long Beach came on April 30, 1992. On that Thursday, the rioting that had erupted in Los Angeles following the not guilty verdicts in the first Rodney G. King beating case swept into Long Beach. When the fires died and the streets were cleared, one person was dead, at least 360 were injured, $20 million worth of structural damage had been done, and, for many, the city was irrevocably changed.
“The riots had a profound impact on how people saw the city and the world,” said Elisa Trujillo, a community activist who lives in the Drake Park neighborhood where Victorian homes and drab apartment buildings sit shoulder to shoulder. “I think there was a tremendous amount of denial on the part of the population of the city, and the riots brought issues to the forefront. No one thought it could happen here. No one thought it could happen to them.”
The riots created a new level of fear--a panic almost approaching paranoia. Fellow residents were viewed with distrust, life seemed more perilous.
“People watched utter chaos, and now they still have that feeling that we are on the verge of it happening again,” said Eileen Figel, a city planner. “That tension is still there.” But it is more than just fear that has created the perception that Long Beach is a more dangerous place. It is a more dangerous place. Compared with 10 years ago, the city has more people, more ethnic tension, more poverty and more gangs.
“The city is going through a transformation and that’s part of it,” said Long Beach Police Cmdr. Anthony Batts. “We are going from a small-town atmosphere to a big city and are experiencing some growing pains.”
There remains something irrepressibly small town about this big city. For years, it has played the role of dowdy little sister to the bigger, more glamorous Los Angeles just 25 miles to the north. Los Angeles, with its millions of people, its movie stars, its towering downtown skyline, its overwhelming social problems, simply overshadows Long Beach. Think Long Beach and think the Queen Mary. Think Long Beach and think Iowa-by-the-Sea.
“There are a lot of people in Long Beach, particularly those over 65, who hang on to the idea of Long Beach being like it was in the 1950s,” said Gerry Felgemaker, manager of community and environmental planning.
But Long Beach is not a small town and hasn’t been for many years. It’s the 32nd largest city in the country, bigger than Atlanta, almost as big as Portland.
“What people tend to forget is that . . . we have almost half a million people here,” said City Manager Hankla. “We are a very cosmopolitan city here. And we are surrounded by a leviathan to the north and west that certainly has a crime problem.”
From 1980 to 1990, the city’s population grew by 68,000 people, to 429,433. The white population shrank by a third, the Hispanic population nearly doubled and the number of Asian residents nearly tripled.
With the growth in population came building booms, overcrowding. The number of new apartment buildings jumped from 63 (with 311 units) in 1980 to 530 (with 5,489 units) in 1986.
In neighborhoods north and east of downtown, quaint California bungalows were razed and boxy apartment buildings were built with not enough parking and no greenery to speak of. Homeowners puttering in their back yards today look up and see rows of windows staring down at them.
“Long Beach really created this. It’s just like building a house and putting a time bomb in the basement. One day that whole house is going to explode,” said Atrilla Scott, a longtime resident of the central city. “You can’t isolate a certain section of the city, pack people in, create crime and then expect it not to spread.”
Mayor Kell said that city officials were attempting to revitalize an anemic economy by stimulating development. It went too far, Kell said.
“In retrospect, it was a mistake,” he said. “We should have put a damper on it.”
During this same period, cities all over the state were beginning to feel the first pinch of Prop. 13, the 1978 initiative that reduced property taxes and made future tax increases much tougher to achieve. City coffers shriveled, budgets were cut. In Long Beach, youth and recreation programs were among the first to go. Money to maintain parks was siphoned off for other things.
“You can track a lot of our violent crime by the choices we made 15 years ago,” said Councilman Ray Grabinski. “We made choices with our wallets and not with our heads . . . and they had a traumatic effect on young people.”
Five years ago, police calculated some 2,000 youngsters belonged to gangs. Today, police estimate 11,000, with new members joining at a rate of 600 a year. What started out as a few Latino gangs staking out their territory and fighting over girls decades ago has evolved into violent criminal cells that today number 66.
In 1987, when the city already had more than 20 gangs, city leaders appointed a task force to study the issue, and the police department and Long Beach Unified School District officials received their first anti-gang grants.
But it was too late. By the end of 1989, violent crime in the city had taken a huge jump. As one police detective put it: “For some reason the crime rate took a 98 degree incline and it went off the charts.” In 1989, Long Beach had the largest jump in serious crime of any of California’s large cities. Major crimes--murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries and car thefts--shot up 25% compared with 1988, and the murder rate jumped by 46%. In the midst of all this, the Long Beach Police Department was embroiled in a bitter war between former Chief Lawrence L. Binkley and the men and women who served under him. For five years, until Binkley was fired in 1992, the department was in chaos. Dozens of officers either resigned or took prolonged sick leaves. Through most of 1988 and 1989, not a single police officer was hired and more than 100 positions, about one-sixth of the force, were vacant. City Council members were deluged with complaints from residents who said police were slow to respond to their calls or ignored them altogether.
Take all this: overcrowding, demographic changes, a police department in turmoil and add general social ills, joblessness, poverty and the unknown amount of “crossover crime” from Los Angeles and other surrounding cities, and there is no arguing that Long Beach has become a more volatile place.
And, say some residents, there was one other culprit. Well, 10 of them actually: the mayor and city council members. Several residents say some of the problems could have been headed off earlier, but city leaders waited too long. For most of the last 13 years, only one detective was assigned full time to gangs, with special task forces created for short stints. Since last spring, 23 officers have been assigned to a gang suppression unit and six detectives and a sergeant to gang detail.
“It was denial,” Sgt. Buz Williams, who heads the gang detail, said of the response of city officials to the gang problem. “They’ll deny a problem until it smacks them in the face.”
“I think we addressed the issue when it became evident we had a problem and we’ve been dealing with it,” he said.
Still, Andy Andrews, who sat on the city’s first gang and drug task force, is sickened because he believes the city ignored many of the committee’s recommendations. Andrews and his wife, Pamela, a former vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, moved to Oregon last month after 47 years in Long Beach because he believed the city was no longer a safe place to live. When Andrews left, he didn’t pack the wooden plaque he received for participating in the 1987 anti-gang committee. Instead, he sawed it in half and tossed it in the garbage.
Mike O’Brien understands that society has become more violent. He understands that Long Beach went through some fundamental changes in the last decade and those changes resulted in a more violent city. He doesn’t really care. What infuriates him is that he has to spend his evenings shooing prostitutes away from the front of his Harley-Davidson store on Pacific Coast Highway, that he feels he has to wear a gun, that he has to sleep on a makeshift bed in the back of the shop to protect his livelihood.
“I love Long Beach,” he said. “It’s a great city. It’s beautiful. But I’m sick of this crap. . . . I’m tired of wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.”
Many residents echo O’Brien’s sentiments. It doesn’t comfort them to know that surrounding cities are in the same fix. They want to be able to walk in their own neighborhoods and let their children play in the front yards.
“That’s fair,” said Kell and he pointed out that the city is doing things to try to make Long Beach safer. In June, the City Council approved a $103-million police budget, 60% more than the department received 10 years ago. The department has opened a substation in the northern part of town and plans another on the east side. It started foot patrols on Anaheim Street and in Belmont Shore, and runs bike patrols downtown.
Just last month, the council approved a massive plan to revitalize Long Beach’s troubled central core. Not all residents like the plan, largely because it gives the city’s redevelopment agency the right to condemn property. But city leaders say that it will free up millions of dollars to give Long Beach Boulevard a face lift, create new business, spruce up homes and, as a result, eventually reduce crime.
They point out that the downtown area has benefited greatly from redevelopment. Crime is down, gangs nonexistent, new businesses are relocating to the area. Some merchants are reporting a 20% to 40% jump in business since a 16-screen theater opened earlier this year.
City leaders acknowledge that it will take a lot more than slapping paint on a building or pulling a few weeds to rid the city of crime or to make people feel safer. They also agreed that putting a cop on every corner is not the only answer. But it’s a start.
For some residents it may be too late. They are too tired to fight, too frustrated to wait. Others say they realize Long Beach may never again be the quiet little town where children spent their carefree days riding the Pike roller coaster. And they say it is tempting to leave. But some can’t. Some won’t. And some don’t know where else to go.
“I still think about moving,” said Betty Bredau, a 13-year resident of the city. “But where to? Leave Long Beach? Then what? Leave Southern California? California? Then leave the United States? That’s it! I’ll move to Canada. How far are you willing to run away?”
Murder in Long Beach
GANG-RELATED PERCENTAGE YEAR SLAYINGS SLAYINGS GANG-RELATED 1983 60 7 12% 1984 41 2 5% 1985 63 15 24% 1986 62 10 16% 1987 62 4 6% 1988 58 14 24% 1989 85 34 40% 1990 105 40 38% 1991 94 53 56% 1992 104 47 45% 1993* 73 40 55%
Gang-related shootings in which someone was hit:
* Statistics through September.
Source: California Department of Justice and the Long Beach Police Department.
City of Change
Demographic shifts in Long Beach over the past decade.
1980 1990 Population 361,355 429,433 White 75% 49.5% Hispanic 14% 24% Black 11% 13% Asian 5% 13% Percentage of residents living below the poverty level 10.7 16.8 Percentage of residents under age 18 23 25.5 Median age 31 30 Number of housing units 159,715 170,388 Renter-occupied 55% 54% Unemployment rate 10.1% 8.8% Average household size 2.31 2.61 Median household income $15,394 $31,938
Sources: U.S. Census, Long Beach Police Department. Unemployment rate measured in July, 1983, and July, 1993.
A Rise and Fall
The crime rate in Long Beach remained steady during most of the 1980s but took a sharp upturn late in the decade. The number of crimes reported began to decrease last year and during the first six months of this year, that downward trend has continued, according to police.
In 1989, a gang was broke out between Latinos and Asians, contributing to an increase in murders that peaked the following year with 106 deaths.
The rate of robberies took a sharp upturn between 1988 and 1989, increasing by 42% to 3,763, but their numbers did not peak until 1990, when they reached 4,193.
The annual number of burglaries peaked at 8,817 in 1989.
In 1990, when the number of rapes in the city hit a record high of 298, and in 1991, at least two serial rapists terrorized Belmont Heights and surrounding neighborhoods.
The number of aggravated assaults climbed steadily through the 1980s. Police attribute part of the increase to a 1985 law requiring officers to take reports of all incidents of domestic violence.
MOTOR VEHICLE THEFTS:
The number of stolen vehicles has decreased since 1990. Auto theft was the only crime that increased during the first six months of this year, compared to the same period in 1992.
“I live three blocks from my church and, believe it or not, I drive there. I have to pass all these apartments with all these young groups standing out there and I don’t know if I am going to be attacked or knocked down.’
Retired nurse who has owned a home in the central area since 1956.
“I don’t think crime is out of control. People have to learn to organize and fight for the community. You can’t let the bad guys take control. . . . You can choose to have them in your area, or you can drive them out.’
Resident who writes a monthly newsletter, “The Watcher.”
“With the type of media we have now, everyone is aware of (crime). Videos of Rodney King and Reginald Denny--these things are incredible, and that’s what people see. It’s there all the time and in living color.’
California Heights resident who thinks his neighborhood has gotten safer.
“During the riots, people felt that their community, their neighborhoods were violated. Before, there was this feeling that they were immune, that their neighborhoods were not in danger.’
City councilman who bought a gun to protect himself and his family after he was threatened. COMING SUNDAY
In neighborhoods all over Long Beach, dozens of small battles are being waged against crime. Some residents arm themselves with guns, others with brooms or books. The Times takes a look at how people are fighting back.