It started in late November. At first, there were uneasy murmurs, then specific -- and more ominous -- talk. It continues today.

Residents tell of a rash of robberies and assaults along their quiet, tree-lined side streets in North Cleveland Park west of Rock Creek Park -- a stable, affluent, predominantly white realm unaccustomed to the rough-and-tumble of Washington street violence.

The word has gone out -- a band of black youths is marauding the neighborhood at night.

But are they?

Housewives talk on the phone to each other nonstop. Children are herded inside before dark.Residents lock their cars when driving. Nightime joggers have changed their running hours. Citizen groups have circulated flyers urging residents to report suspicious groups to the police.

Fear -- based on what police say is more on rumor than fact -- has slowly gripped much of the area. It came to a head just after midnight on Jan. 12 when, according to various citizen accounts, a gang of seven or eight blacks armed with pistols and hammers beat and robbed up to a dozen white pedestrians in six to eight assaults within a 45-minute period in the residential area just east and south of Tenley Circle.

Second and third -- hand accounts circulating the next few days included claims that gang members made racially insulting remarks and appeared to beat and kick their victims vendetta-style.

Police acknowledged a spate of robberies and some injuries occurred on Jan. 12 but contend the popular accounts have been embroidered. They said only four robbery incidents involving six victims were reported, and only three victims were injured, one with a possibly broken nose. The size of the gang ranged from three to five, and the victims mentioned seeing hammers in only one of the incidents. None mentioned any hostile racial remarks by the gang.

While the police see the incidents as isolated and unlikely to occur again, many in the community fear it is part of a continuing pattern.

Is there a real crime wave or have snowballing rumors created one?

The police, for one, say the community's fears are vastly exaggerated. Crime is up somewhat in that area, they acknowledge, but it is statistically insignificant and there is no evidence of racially inspired violence.

"I need (citizen) help, not hysteria," said D.C. Police Capt. Edward J. Spurlock, commander of sector 3 of the 2nd District, which covers Cleveland Park, Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights and other portions of far Northwest Washington.

The police report 40 armed street robberies in sector 3 during November and December and in the first 22 days of January. In the same period a year ago, 28 armed street robberies were reported, 12 fewer than this year.

Put another way, the figures mean that in the last 83 days, citizens reported being robbed at gunpoint 40 times -- a rate of less than one every two days in an eight-square mile area stretching from Rock Creek Park on the east to Massachusetts and Cathedral avenues and Loughboro Road on the south and Western Avenue on the west and north.

Several area residents interviewed about their perception of the crime increase asked that their names and addresses not be used. The Uptown Citizen, a weekly neighborhood newspaper, published a front-page story about the increase in robberies, noting that the assailants have been "male youths, age 12-20, from outside the neighborhood." It listed 32 robberies, including several pocketbook snatches, reported between Dec. 4 and Jan. 12.

Also, the North Cleveland Park Citizens Association distributed a "citizen alert" flyer warning residents to look out for a "group of young black males, from two to five in number." It said there had been about 26 "muggings, purse snatchings, armed robberies and assaults" in the last six weeks, in an area bounded by Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues, Calvert Street and the Maryland line.

The only new and troubling element in all this, Spurlock said, is that a few of the robberies have been committed against isolated pedestrians on residential side streets away from the more heavily traveled Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenue corridors where most street crime occurs.

It is these intrusions into the residential areas that have enflamed the community, Spurlock said. "They've never had it happen to them before," he said.

"I don't like this at all," said Douglas Kiker, an NBC news correspondent and North Cleveland Park resident.". . . these things may happen in Southeast and other parts of the city. We're not used to it here. I don't know quite how to handle it."

At another point, Kiker said, "I don't care about catching them (robbers). I just want them to go away. . . . I want to see a lot of flashing (police) lights."

Spurlock said he has deployed a special task force of officers to stem the increase in robberies but his work is hampered by the "rumors, theories and poor descriptions of the suspects."

He said, "I've never seen such a diversity of suspects, MOs (methods of operation) and weapons. The descriptions are just out of this world."

While flyers, handbills and word-of-mouth reports speak of a single gang or possibly two in the area, Spurlock said there are "too many descriptions for that."

He said, "I believe there are at least two groups working this area, but I wouldn't attribute even 50 percent of the robberies to the groups." The rest of the robberies are committed by individuals, operating on their own, he said. o

He said citizen descriptions of the suspects range from "teen-agers to full grown men, and short ones and tall ones. . . . I even have some white suspects."

He urged residents to observe suspicious persons more closely and to "keep a pad and pencil handy" to write down auto tag numbers. "A tag number is better than a description of the car," he said.

The incidence of robbery is too erratic, Spurlock said, to suggest a real increase.

"Yesterday, I didn't have one single robbery in sector 3," he said earlier this week, "and I haven't had one so far today. But the day before I had six all in one (eight-hour) shift."

Spurlock said he does not believe the Jan. 12 spate of robberies and assaults was "racial in any way. . . . They were merely crooks looking for something of value."

One Jan. 12 robbery victim, a 17-year-old high school student who asked not to be identified, said one gang member told him, "Don't move, whitey, we're not fooling around," but made no other racial reference. The youth said that after he surrendered his wallet with $16, he was struck across the nose by the pistol and hammer-wielding group and then kicked when he was on the ground. "They broke my nose," he said.

The youth said police investigators told him later they speculated the gang members were "blacks from Southeast who came over here to 'get whitey.'"

Spurlock said it was possible one of his investigators "may have shown his prejudice," but the "get whitey" statement was not based on solid evidence.

The rumors "make it sound like there's a gang or gangs running around beating people, just for the sake of beating them," he said. "But that's not true. . . . These are mostly robberies. What a lot of people up here don't understand is that getting robbed and being hit (in the course of the robbery) is typical. That's the way it goes down."