To combat a string of arson fires in Forest Hills, the NYPD is throwing more uniformed and plainclothes cops into the area in an effort to catch whoever has targeted new home construction in the Bukharian Jewish community in the past month, Commissioner William Bratton said Monday.
Among the officers being brought in to patrol at night are cops from the newly formed Strategic Response Group, which has been used more recently for counterterrorism operations.
Since Oct. 20, police have recorded seven arson fires, usually set in the early to late evening hours and damaging 13 structures, including a number of new homes under construction.
So far, police have been stumped as to a motive but for the moment do not believe the pattern of fires represents a bias crime against the Bukharian community in the area. A number of Bukharian families have taken to building new, large homes on tracts of land formally occupied by more modest homes.
“We wish we knew,” said Bratton, when asked Monday about possible motives.
Rafael Nektalov, editor of the Bukharian Times newspaper, said although police are not calling the arsons bias crimes, the Bukharian community, composed of immigrants from Uzbekistan and other areas of the former Soviet Union, has drawn criticism for its penchant for grandiose home construction.
“Some people say they did not like us,” Nektalov said.
Rabbi Label Lam, who has a congregation in the community, said talk among parents and congregants was that it seemed whoever set the fires had a specific agenda, either directed at Bukharian Jews or a particular kind of home construction.
“I do hear there is a sense it is not so hard to connect the dots,” Lam said.
Residents in the area are frightened and will be meeting Tuesday morning with police at the Bukharian Jewish Community Center in Forest Hills, according to Nektalov.
In a meeting with reporters, Bratton and his staff said a man photographed on a motorcycle near the latest fire early Sunday was not considered a suspect and had been helpful to police. Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said one unusual aspect of the arson fires was that no accelerant appeared to have been used.
A video surveillance image from one of the earlier fires revealed a man dressed in a hoodie walking in a construction lot. Police circulated the image in the hopes of drumming up leads and so far have received four calls to the Crime Stoppers line, a police official said.