Friday, 16 Apr 2021

N.Y.P.D. to Question Woman Who Tackled Black Teenager at SoHo Hotel

For more than a week, the authorities in New York City have faced mounting public pressure to arrest a woman caught on video tackling a Black teenager in the lobby of a boutique hotel in SoHo after falsely accusing him of stealing her cellphone.

Now, detectives are traveling to California to interview the woman, the police said on Thursday — an unusual step often reserved for crimes that are violent or high profile.

It was not yet clear if that meant the woman, identified by her lawyer as Miya Ponsetto, 22, would face any charges in connection with the Dec. 26 incident. The police said the investigation was continuing, and prosecutors have declined to discuss the case, noting on Thursday that charges have not been filed.

The episode was yet another instance of Black people being confronted with baseless accusations while going about their daily lives. It has drawn comparisons to an incident in May when a white woman called 911 to falsely claim that a Black bird-watcher in Central Park was threatening her life.

The video was taken and posted on social media by Keyon Harrold, a prominent jazz musician, who was staying at the Arlo hotel with his 14-year-old son, Keyon Harrold, Jr.

In the video, Ms. Ponsetto can be seen confronting Mr. Harrold and his son after they walk into the hotel lobby, insisting without evidence that Keyon Jr. has her cellphone. Ms. Ponsetto can be seen asking a hotel manager to help her, after which the manager identifies himself and asks Keyon Jr. to produce a cellphone, in an apparent attempt to verify Ms. Ponsetto’s claim.

Surveillance footage released by the police last week shows Ms. Ponsetto running after Keyon Jr. and tackling him. Ms. Ponsetto was trying to rummage through Keyon Jr.'s pockets, Mr. Harrold said.

Mr. Harrold said he was told by the hotel that an Uber driver found Ms. Ponsetto’s phone later in the day, and she picked it up from the hotel.

Ms. Ponsetto has been the subject of public scrutiny and speculation about possible criminal charges since the video emerged. According to public records, she faces unrelated criminal charges in California, including a lewd conduct charge in Los Angeles County involving an incident in February and a driving while intoxicated charge in Ventura County following an incident in October.

Prosecutors in California did not immediately provide more details.

In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Ponsetto’s lawyer, Sharen H. Ghatan, confirmed Ms. Ponsetto was the woman in the Arlo hotel video. She said Ms. Ponsetto regretted her actions and was seeking to apologize in person to Mr. Harrold and his family. As of Thursday morning, the police had not contacted Ms. Ponsetto, Ms. Ghatan said.

Ms. Ghatan said Ms. Ponsetto was not targeting Mr. Harrold or his son because of their race. She is of Puerto Rican and Vietnamese descent and does not identify as white, Ms. Ghatan said.

“She’s not trying to make any racial statement,” Ms. Ghatan said. “She’s a female herself of mixed cultural descent. She’s not some blond-haired, blue eyed privileged white lady. She literally just wanted to get her phone back.”

Ms. Ponsetto was visiting her father who lives in the New York City area over the holidays when she lost her cellphone, Ms. Ghatan said. Ms. Ponsetto was a guest at the hotel at some point during the holiday week, Ms. Ghatan said, but it was not clear why she was there when the confrontation took place.

Ms. Ponsetto saw Keyon Jr. with a phone and thought it was hers, according to Ms. Ghatan.

“What happened, happened,” Ms. Ghatan said. “Would she do it again? No. It was purely out of her being anxious, stressed, cornered, feeling helpless, lost, alone, unsupported.”

She said Ms. Ponsetto works in an office for a health-related company, but declined to be more specific.

“She’s not a celebrity, she’s not a Kardashian,” Ms. Ghatan said. “She doesn’t know how to act, she doesn’t know how to behave. She’s a young girl.”

Mr. Harrold said Ms. Ponsetto’s actions demanded more than an apology. He said that both her behavior and the hotel manager’s actions reflected a systemic problem where Black people — and Black teenagers in particular — are seen as threats or outsiders.

Mr. Harrold described his son as innocent and impressionable — “an aspiring music producer, drummer, artist, who loves being around his friends.” But, he said, he is too often not seen that way. “He’s made out to be criminal. He’s made out to be a threat. That’s the thing that needs to change.”

The Police Department has said that they were not treating the confrontation as a “bias incident.” But it has drawn widespread attention as a striking example of racial profiling.

Joseph L. Giacalone, a retired New York City police sergeant and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that the pressure from the public on the Police Department “is just immense here,” particularly given the recent protests against systemic racism following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

He said that it was a rarity for detectives to travel across the country for anything other than murder or cold case investigations.

“This is an unusual event that is driven not only by media, but by social media,” he said.

At a news conference last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said it has “almost become tragically comical how much you can rely on the fact that someone will unjustly accuse a young man of color in America.”

“When someone does something like this, they have to suffer consequences,” he said. “And there needs to be real action here by the criminal justice system to make sure there are consequences in this case.”

At a separate news conference, the Rev. Al Sharpton and civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, who is representing Mr. Harrold, called on prosecutors and the police to bring charges.

“This has larger implications,” Mr. Crump said. “It was Emmett Till who was falsely accused and racially profiled that led to him being killed.”

Arlo, which has two hotels in the city, advertises its SoHo location as a trendy destination with a rooftop bar and Hudson River views.

The hotel has apologized to Mr. Harrold and his son in a statement. While the hotel said the manager called the police to report the incident and hotel security had stepped in, “more could have been done to de-escalate the dispute.”

Mr. Harrold, who has performed with artists including Beyoncé, Rihanna and Jay-Z, said he had been staying at the Arlo since mid-December.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research and Michael Gold contributed reporting.

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