By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - On a narrow spit of land in Jamaica Bay, Queens, one resident erected a wooden sign in front of an open garage: "Looters will be crucified - God help you."
From concerns about crime in storm-darkened neighborhoods, to rescue efforts that continue days after superstorm Sandy battered the U.S. Northeast, the New York Police Department has been stretched to respond to one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the region.
While the NYPD's emergency responders conducted boat and helicopter rescues this week in coastal flood zones, uniformed officers manned bridge checkpoints, patrolled blacked out neighborhoods, directed traffic through hundreds of intersections, collected and delivered food donations, staffed 911 call centers, guarded terrorism targets and patrolled long gas station lines to quell disputes.
"How long can the NYPD go at full throttle like this is the big question," said Gene O'Donnell, a former NYPD officer and professor of policing studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "What they're doing out there this week is extraordinary, and it's a giant organization with incredible resources and skill sets, but the longer it goes, the more they get stretched."
At the storm's peak on Monday, police were receiving 20,000 calls per hour, said chief NYPD spokesman Paul Browne. Even with those demands, police said they have not seen a spike in crime. Not a single murder has been reported in the city since the storm, according to the police department, compared to an average of just over one a day so far this year.
But residents in areas that remain without power days after the storm are worried and fearful, and speculation about everything from looting to petty theft have spread from block to block. In one Queens neighborhood, residents spoke about rumors of thieves posing as federal workers.
Monsignor Alfred LoPinto, the pastor at St. Helen's Church in Howard Beach, said his parishioners, many of whom were without power, were living in fear. "I'm just telling them to hang on," he said.
Aware of the risks of crime in blacked-out neighborhoods, the NYPD has reinforced patrols with officers normally assigned to organized crime units, said Browne. NYPD school security personnel are manning city shelters. Plainclothes detectives are donning uniforms to walk beats.
"People really don't even understand the scope of the NYPD's duties in a situation like this," said Joseph King, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It's mind-boggling. They've got to have a presence everywhere."
Nine suspects were arrested on Coney Island on Tuesday afternoon after allegedly looting a local store, police said. In Far Rockaway, Queens on Wednesday four men, aged 16 to 49, were charged with looting a Radio Shack store. Early Thursday morning, 18 more were arrested for burglarizing a Key Food on Coney Island. Police have erected light towers to help with patrols of high-crime neighborhoods without power.
For many New York police officers, front-line rescue and recovery efforts are taking a toll. The department has 50,000 personnel, including 35,000 uniformed officers and 15,000 support staff, some of whom are civilian.
"I don't think you're going to get anyone saying that this is worse than 9/11, but it's comparable in terms of the human devastation, and the human sadness," said one NYPD officer, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
Dealing with the storm-related deaths of children can be particularly difficult. On Tuesday night, police discovered the pajama-clad body of a 13-year-old girl on the lawn of her Staten Island home. The next day, police found the body of her father in a wooded area nearby.
Then on Thursday, NYPD officers in wetsuits clearing dense brush on Staten Island with pitchforks and shovels discovered the bodies of two boys, aged 2 and 4, who had been swept from their mother's grip as the trio tried to flee the storm in the family vehicle Monday night.
"Police resources are being stretched in every direction out here," said John Murphy III, a Staten Island attorney. "I haven't driven past a single working gas station that doesn't have cops patrolling the lines and keeping the peace. I don't know how long they can keep it up at this pace."
(Additional reporting by Emily Flitter; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Eric Walsh)