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.
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.
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.