The New York City Police Department has formed a new unit to patrol Times Square, following weeks of complaints about the tactics of costumed characters and topless women covered in body paint, who crowd the popular tourist area seeking tips in exchange for photos.
The announcement came a week after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio assigned a multiagency task force to figure out how to deal with the issue. Times Square, one of the nation’s busiest and most crowded public spaces, had already been slated to get new officers who would work regular shifts and would be assigned to the same posts every day.
But media attention over the past few weeks accelerated the decision to recruit, the New York Police Department (NYPD) said.
"It just seemed natural," Chief of Department James O'Neill said Wednesday. It isn't the first time the NYPD has vowed to crack down on costumed pandhandlers, with sporadic arrests of those who allegedly ask for bigger tips than a customary dollar or two.
Police hope to double the number of officers assigned to patrol the so-called Crossroads of the World from 50 to 100 by fall, O'Neill said. He added that the new officers will get to know the business owners, vendors and workers in the area, in line with the neighborhood policing model being implemented in other precincts citywide.
"Times Square is an important piece of real estate in New York City," O’Neill said. "And you have to pay attention to what goes on there."
Toplessness and panhandling are both legal in New York state, but that hasn't stopped the city's tabloids and some elected officials from calling loudly for action. Some critics have suggested regulating the transactions as a business, while others have floated the idea of returning the area’s pedestrian plaza to car traffic. The plaza, put in place in 2010, blocked off part of Broadway to vehicles.
Saira Nicole, one of the women who accepts tips for photos in Times Square, doesn't believe the practice should be an issue.
"People are having fun," she told the Associated Press. "There's no problem."
Some costumed characters, many of them immigrants from Central America, echoed her sentiment.
“I don't think we're aggressive. We just ask for a tip," Jose Aures, 29, who was wearing a Mickey Mouse costume, told the Daily News. “Nobody robs. Nobody steals," he said.
Overall crime is relatively low in the area, though there are also complaints about aggressive CD hawkers and other vendors who sell their wares too close to businesses or the street. Times Square’s vast pedestrian plaza draws massive numbers of tourists year-round, and it has become a venue for commercial exhibitions, art projects and musical performances.
At night, chairs on the plaza in Time Square become a haven for many homeless people, whose ranks have swelled in recent years. Their presence, and minor offenses such as sleeping in public, have become rallying cries for New Yorkers critical of de Blasio, including the NYPD sergeant's union.
From the 1970s until the mid-1990s, Times Square was notorious as a hub for prostitutes and drug users, as well as strip clubs and peep shows. A concerted campaign by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the late 1990s forced many of them out. Giuliani also increased the NYPD’s aggressiveness in enforcing minor infractions.
The tactics have come under fire in recent years amid a national debate on police practices and racial bias. Although violent crime has decreased steadily over the last 20 years in the city, a recent rise in murders this year has some New Yorkers worried that the era of unsafe streets will return.
O'Neill insisted that Times Square is unlikely to return to its earlier seedy reputation, the Daily News reported. “Times Square today is nothing like it was back in 1983 and through the '80s and the '90s," he said. "It is a far safer place."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press