EAST HARLEM — The NYPD's Hate Crimes Unit is helping with the investigation to capture a violent serial mugger who has targeted people of Asian descent in East Harlem by following them into elevators before beating and robbing them, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Friday.
The suspect has beaten and robbed six people in East Harlem elevators in the past week, police said.
“Obviously the fact that all of the victims are Asian raises concerns in that area, but we’re certainly not in position to categorize it as a hate crime at this time," Kelly said Friday during a promotions ceremony at One Police Plaza.
The suspect followed the victims into the elevators, punched them in the face, and ran off with their property, according to the NYPD.
The thief has escaped with victims' purses, wallets, credit cards and iPhones, among other valuables, police said.
The mugger attacked a 46-year-old man on Wednesday about 6 a.m., punching him in the face several times, and ran off with his phone and wallet, police said. Some two hours later, the suspect hit a 62-year-old man in the face and ran off with his phone and wallet, too.
On Thursday, he repeatedly punched a 47-year-old woman before fleeing with her purse, cops said.
Each victim was treated at area hospitals for facial injuries, cops said. One of the victims suffered a broken nose in the attack.
East Harlem has seen a large growth in its Asian population over the last 10 years.
According to U.S. Census figures, East Harlem North's Asian population has increased to more than 1,700 people from just over 500 in 2000. Asians now make up 3 percent of the area's population, the third highest growth in the city.
In East Harlem South, the percentage of Asian population jumped to 8.3 percent from 4.6 percent in 2000. There are more than 4,800 Asian residents compared to just under 2,200 in 2000.
Most of that growth has been attributed to increases in the Chinese population. Many are believed to be moving to the neighborhood from Chinatown due to increasing development and rising rents in the area.
Chinatown saw a 15 percent decline in its Chinese population since 2000, according to census figures.
East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito took on a volunteer liaison to the Chinese community in 2011. The volunteer has since left, but Mark-Viverito is looking for someone to fill the role.
She said the attacks were "extremely alarming."
"It's unfortunate that someone is taking advantage of people that are vulnerable," said Mark-Viverito. "We need to find the person responsible and send a message that this won't be tolerated."
Mark-Viverito said she planned to send out a warning to Asian residents in her district to be more alert.
Kelly said more Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking officers are being placed in the area.
The NYPD has released photos of the suspect, who they say was wearing a black jacket and blue jeans in the most recent attack.
Anyone with information about the incidents should submit a tip at NYPD Crime Stoppers or call 800-577-TIPS.