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The Fear of Crime Hits Home : Police: Although statistics show that crime has dropped in the last 18 months, residents say numbers don't make them feel safer. Some have taken up arms or put up security bars. Others have left the city.

A CITY ON GUARD: First of two parts


LONG BEACH — 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.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 14, 1993 Home Edition Long Beach Part J Page 6 Column 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Hospital Security--St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach has beefed up its security system in the emergency room. In a story published Sept. 30, The Times incorrectly identified the hospital.

"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."

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