Residents of the Long Beach peninsula, an exclusive beach area on the east side of town, are locking their doors more often now.
They are paying more attention to any strange sounds they hear at night.
And recently they formed a committee to study the possibility of hiring a private security firm to guard their community around the clock.
"It's sad," said Jackie Brown, who has lived in the neighborhood for 28 years. "(It seems) like no place is really safe anymore."
The peace of this ordinarily tranquil neighborhood has been disturbed by a recent influx of gangs from the inner city that resulted in two shootings on May 31.
What makes it remarkable is that the area is an unlikely gathering place for gangs. A mile-long finger of land separating Alamitos Bay from the Pacific Ocean on the city's affluent southeast side, the peninsula is bordered by wide stretches of sand and dotted with apartments and houses ranging from tiny beach cottages worth $350,000 to larger, turn-of-the-century clapboard homes that would list for close to $1 million.
Surrounded on three sides by water with only one road leading in, the peninsula is virtually cut off from the rest of Long Beach, giving it an isolated ambience that has contributed to the feeling of neighborliness and security long prevalent among the area's more than 2,000 residents.
All that began to change earlier this year when police started rousting gang members from their habitual hangouts in central Long Beach, a low-income inner-city area several miles to the northwest that is well-known for its gang activities.
"The gangs went down (to the peninsula) because of a concentrated police effort in the central area," said Sgt. Jeff Craig, the Long Beach Police Department officer in charge of the city's gang task force. "They went down there figuring it was quieter and they would be less likely to be accosted by police."
At about the same time, peninsula residents began noticing graffiti on their walls. On weekend nights huge crowds of young people began carousing on the beach, leaving empty liquor bottles and used condoms in their wake. And occasionally the partying erupted into loud arguments that shattered the residents' sleep.
Late in May the situation turned violent when rival gangs got into a gunfight. Two gang members were injured, neither seriously. And in the melee that followed, police made several arrests.
Resident Brown, who was home at the time, has a vivid memory of the event.
"I heard a noise and said, 'My God, that sounded like shots,' " she recalled. "Then I looked out the window and saw all these kids running between the houses. That was something new."
The incident prompted more than 200 residents to crowd into the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club on June 12 to express their outrage to a group of city officials including Police Chief Lawrence Binkley and City Councilman Doug Drummond. Among other things, residents called for the area to be gated to keep out non-residents--an idea Drummond told them was illegal because it is on a public street--and proposed hiring a private security force.
Police say that since the shooting incident they have increased patrols in the area to strictly enforce the city's 10 p.m. curfew on the beach and to arrest any loiterers.
"We're down there every weekend," Craig said. "We've got walking patrols on weekends and two gang units every night."
Since the extra patrols began, he said, police have made about five arrests in the area on charges ranging from public drunkenness to auto theft. But for the most part, he said, the gangs have disappeared, leading him to conclude that the problem is solved.
"(The gangs) have pretty much decided not to congregate down there anymore," Craig said. "The place is too hot; there are too many police."
While residents concede that there have been no major gang-related incidents since the extra patrolling began, they fear that the gangs might return once police interest wanes.
"(Gang activity) is like the tide," said Martin J. Mayer, an attorney who specializes in advising law enforcement agencies and who has lived on the peninsula for more than eight years. "It goes in and out. The reality is that the police cannot patrol the area to the degree that the community would like. My guess is that as soon as they back off, you will see an attempt by the gangs to re-establish a beachhead."
To prevent that from happening, the Alamitos Bay Beach Preservation Group, a neighborhood homeowners' association, has asked Mayer to collect bids from private security firms capable of providing cars to patrol the area all night.
"The residents want something done," said Harriet Rothenberg, president of the homeowners' group.
Rothenberg said the proposed security patrol would cost at least $3,000 a month, a fee that would be borne by residents on a voluntary basis.
The idea has the endorsement of Councilman Drummond, whose district includes the peninsula. "We need some kind of continued vigilance there from dusk until dawn," he said. By providing armed security guards in instant communication with police, Drummond said, the community can both deter gang activity and assure that the Police Department--which he described as under-funded and undermanned--can respond quickly to incidents.
Rothenberg said her group is planning another community meeting later this month to consider the security bids.