A new city law would hit looters who commit “crimes of opportunity” during disasters like Hurricane Sandy with tougher penalties – but some critics fear the measure won’t be much of a deterrent.
“I don’t know whether any rule saying, ‘Thou shalt not loot’ is going to stop the incident from happening in the case of an emergency,” said Chuck Reichenthal, district manager of Community Board 13, which includes Coney Island.
Coney Island, like parts of Staten Island and the Rockaways, was hit hard by the October storm – and then by looters and other criminals.
Pre-Sandy, looters could get hit with fines of up to $1,000 on top of possible time behind bars. Under the new law, signed by Mayor Bloomberg, looters face fines of $2,500 during a state of emergency and $5,000 in an evacuation zone. Newly created civil penalties would cost criminals another $5,000 during a state of emergency, and $5,000 to $10,000 in an evacuation zone. The fines and civil penalties would be in addition to any jail time.
But some said the stiffer penalties probably wouldn’t stop thieves unlikely to know – or care – about the new law.
“How is the average looter going to know the fines are higher?” asked Grant Brenner, a psychiatrist who specializes in disaster relief. “Is Mayor Bloomberg or the chief of police going to get on TV and say, ‘There’s harsher fines for looting, we want to remind people this bill passed, we’re going to have people on every block to prevent looting?’”
The bill passed in March by the City Council only addresses the increased penalties, not ways to publicize the new law. “Other than just doing what we’ve done, like send out press releases and have the media cover it, that’s pretty much it,” said Michael Panteledis, a spokesman for Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr. (D-Queens), a co-sponsor of the bill.
Brenner believes the law will provide some psychological relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy, but will have little practical impact.
“When a disaster comes, the structure of society is gone for a little while. For a lot of people, it gives them a kind of high,” Brenner said. “A lot of the looting comes out of what people do with that crisis energy.”
But in Reichenthal’s experience in Coney Island, “criminal opportunists” were motivated less by the thrill of the crime than by necessity.
“Whatever looting that might have happened after Sandy may well have come from the fact that people had no water and no food because we were just cut off from everything,” he said.
A Tragic Example
Backers said the law is intended to reassure those living in evacuation zones that their property will be safeguarded during natural disasters. Some people stayed home during Hurricane Sandy out of fear their houses would be looted.
Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R –Staten Island), a co-sponsor of the measure, cited the case of Staten Islander George Dresch, who remained in his Yetman Avenue home, which had been burglarized after Hurricane Irene. Dresch and his 13-year-old daughter, Angela, were killed when their home was washed away during Sandy. His wife, Patricia Dresch, was seriously injured.
“They stayed and paid the ultimate price,” Ignizio said last month at the Committee on Public Safety’s hearing on the bill.
The New Jersey Assembly is poised to pass a similar anti-looting bill. In New Orleans, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Isaac, a dusk-to-dawn curfew is imposed during natural disasters. Louisiana looters can garner three years in prison, as well as a $5,000 fine.
Despite criticism of the New York City law, Midland Beach Civic Association President Yasmin Ammirato is optimistic the measure will help. She lost her home of more than 40 years during Sandy, and witnessed an onslaught of looting in her Staten Island neighborhood.
“When you’re in this kind of a situation where you don’t know what to do, they take advantage, and it’s terrible,” Ammirato said. “[The bill won’t deter] everybody, but it will deter some people. And hopefully we’ll never have to go through this again.”