CRIME

NYC hotel to buy 'panic buttons' for housekeepers

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NEW YORK (AP) - A hotel is promising to buy "panic buttons" for its housekeepers and start sexual harassment training after an Egyptian businessman was accused of attacking a maid in one of its rooms.

The New York police commissioner warned Wednesday that the case, the second high-profile accusation by a New York hotel housekeeper in a month, may be harder to prosecute because The Pierre Hotel waited 15 hours to report it.

The Pierre and the Sofitel Hotel, where the then-leader of the International Monetary Fund was accused of assaulting a maid on May 14, have both told labor officials they will give housekeepers wireless devices to alert managers if they are attacked, the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council said.

The union said it will call for such devices as part of its contract negotiations with 150 hotels next year, and a state legislator has proposed a bill requiring the devices statewide.

When such attacks are alleged, they must be reported to authorities as soon as possible in order to gather forensic evidence that helps in prosecuting them, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.

In the most recent case, the 44-year-old hotel maid told her supervisor immediately that she had been attacked Sunday evening by Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar, a businessman and former chairman of a major Egyptian bank.

The supervisor waited until the following morning to alert the security director, who then contacted police. The hotel suspended the housekeeping supervisor.

Kelly said that there is often a delay in reporting sexual assaults, and that the department believes the instances are underreported, because victims feel embarrassed and ashamed. But he has no indication that there were instances of hotels sweeping complaints under the rug.

He said he would look into whether the department needed to reach out to hotels across the city to impress the importance of reporting crimes quickly.

"We can only say that it's very important for the investigation to call and have a police response as quickly as possible," he said.

Omar was arraigned early Wednesday on two counts of sexual abuse and forcible touching. Authorities said he locked the woman in the room after calling the front desk to request tissues, then sexually assaulted her. His lawyer, Liz Beal, told the court that her client "adamantly denies the charges against him."

It was the second recent instance in which a high-profile man was accused of sexually attacking a hotel maid in New York. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former presidential contender in France, was arrested in May on charges he forced himself on a maid after locking her in his room. He resigned as head of the IMF but has denied the charges, as have his lawyers.

The two cases have cast light on the potential dangers faced by hotel housekeepers, and have increased pressure on hotels to do something about it.

"The problem of hotel maids being inappropriately groped or propositioned has been known for a long time," said Rory Lancman, a New York state assemblyman from Queens. "They need to have as much protection as possible, and that means equipment and that means policies that protect them."

Lancman, who heads the assembly's subcommittee on workplace issues, filed a bill last month that would require hotels to give single-button alert devices to any employees who regularly enter guest rooms. The Hotel Association of New York City, which represents about 200 hotel owners, said it was studying the proposal.

The Pierre has decided to buy the buttons for its housekeeping staff, said Nora Walsh, a spokeswoman for the hotel. The Pierre was also holding extra training sessions for housekeepers and managers to remind them that they must report attacks immediately to police, she said.

"We're committed to doing it because we want to provide the safest and most secure environment for our room attendants to be working in," Walsh said.

The Sofitel has also promised union officials it will buy the equipment, said John Turchiano, a spokesman for the trades council. A spokeswoman for the Sofitel, Stacy Royal, would not confirm that, saying she could not discuss the hotel's security measures.

Anthony Roman, a hotel security expert, said panic button systems can be complicated and are not a "silver bullet" protection against assaults. The devices must be small and inconspicuous so that an assailant cannot remove them easily. They also must include a locating device that works indoors so security guards can find an employee in trouble.

Turchiano said the trades council planned to demand panic buttons during its 2012 negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement covering 29,000 workers at 150 New York City hotels. But the Pierre case shows that supervisors must also be trained to take action when a call for help comes, he said.

"This employee's supervisor, frankly, did not do the right thing," Turchiano said. "You don't just enter something like that in a logbook. You call security and you do something about it."

Walsh said that the Pierre's housekeeper was on paid leave, and that the hotel had hired a counselor for her and her family.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Omar had not yet posted $25,000 bail.

Strauss-Kahn is free on $1 million bail, under house arrest in a stately Tribeca brick home that was advertised as renting for $50,000 a month. He must notify prosecutors six hours in advance if he plans to leave and he cannot go anywhere from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. He has already had a string of visitors, including family and friends.

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