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Times Square Costumed Character Complaints on the Rise Amid Drop in Arrests

 The city's designated activity zones for commercial activity went into effect a little over a year ago.
Costumed Characters
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TIMES SQUARE — Costumed character arrests have dropped into the single digits since the city moved to pen performers in to "designated activity zones" a little over a year ago — but complaints from visitors over clusters of Batmans and Minnie Mouses have surged despite the new enforcement. 

Between June 21, 2015, and June 14, 2016 — a week before the city installed the zones for commercial activity in Times Square’s pedestrian plazas — police arrested 36 costumed characters for offenses ranging from aggressive panhandling to grand larceny and assault, the NYPD said.

The number of arrests plunged to just eight between June 21, 2016, and June 14 of this year, police said.

Despite the drop, those who live, work and own businesses in Times Square still feel the area's performers and hawkers are a nuisance.

In a survey conducted by the Times Square Alliance earlier this year, 51 percent of the 215 respondents — made up of Times Square-based employees, business and property owners, residents and a few “others” — reported “having an unpleasant interaction or negative experience with a costumed character or solicitor,” despite the presence of the activity zones, a spokesman for the Alliance said.

“While behaviors are better, you still have some folks … especially the CD sellers … stray[ing] 10, 15, 20 feet from the designated activity zones,” Alliance president Tim Tompkins explained.

The percentage of respondents unhappy with their experiences nearly doubled from the fall of 2015, when another survey of Times Square-goers found that just 26 percent of respondents had "unpleasant" interactions with costumed characters. 

That survey — made up of responses from 3,930 visitors, an online panel and businesses in the area — also found that 40 percent had negative interactions with solicitors in Times Square.

Several people passing through the plazas last week said they tried to avoid the characters, if possible.

"They try to grab you. And then they always want money, too," said a 41-year-old woman named Jen, who was visiting the city from Colorado for work and declined to provide her last name. "It's a little intimidating, because it makes you not want to be out here. ... It reminds me of the Vegas Strip."

Many costumed characters have received summonses for conducting activity outside of the marked areas since the zones went into effect.

Police issued 220 designated activity zones-related summonses to the performers between June 21, 2016, and June 14 of this year, the NYPD said. An additional 51 summonses were written to people carrying out other commercial activities in the plazas.

A 26-year-old Super Mario impersonator, who declined to give his name, said he was scheduled to appear in court next month for a summons he received for taking a photo with a tourist outside one of the zones.

“It was better [before the zones], because we could walk all over,” said the New Jersey resident, who said he supports his family in Peru with the money he makes in Times Square.

Some of the tickets have resulted from miscommunications between police and Times Square Alliance security personnel, explained Hulk impersonator Angelo Mangini, 47. Language barriers also pose an issue for performers, as many speak mainly Spanish.

“Sometimes they cannot explain themselves as they want to,” said Mangini, who as a Spanish and English speaker, acts as a translator when he can.

Tompkins said he felt the new rules — and their enforcement — were "still evolving." 

"I'm sympathetic to the [characters'] concerns, and I think we’ve tried to work with [the city's Department of Transportation] and the NYPD to be responsible about that,” he said.

"I think as always, sometimes people are consistent in ... following the rules, and some people push the limits, and those are probably the people that get the summonses."

Keeping the designated activity zones in the same place and maintaining their size has proven difficult given the number of events and activities and the amount of construction — both private and public — that take place in and around the plazas, Tompkins explained.

Police enforcement has ebbed and flowed since the zones were implemented, and when the Alliance conducted its survey this past spring, enforcement “seemed to be slipping a bit,” he said.

In July 2016 — the month after the rules went into effect — another survey by the Alliance found that 42 percent of 1,276 passersby had had an "unpleasant interaction" with a costumed character or another solicitor in Times Square that summer.

“I expect that there’ll be cycles both on the part of the characters and the police,” Tompkins said. “[And] obviously the police are very distracted with larger security concerns.”

Nevertheless, he saw the decrease in arrests as a sign that the zones are working — for the most part.

“Even though nothing is totally perfect — from anybody’s point of view — it’s been a huge step forward,” Tompkins said. “And I think there’s a greater clarity about both rules and the kind of behaviors that are generally acceptable."

Last week, Times Square visitor and Long Island resident Bob Kouroupakis said he felt the characters' behavior had improved recently.

"I remember years ago, they used to be really bad, but now they've calmed down a little bit. They've got to make a living too," said the 51-year-old, who is often in the city for work. "I think it's a nice touch to Times Square."

And despite the issues they spoke of, several costumed characters said they still valued the independence and flexible schedules for which the job allows.

“It’s accessible. I can come in the morning or the evening,” said a 53-year-old Minnie Mouse impersonator named Julia, who declined to provide her last name.

“The people enjoy it, the kids enjoy it. I find it fun,” Batman impersonator Andres Calamarro added. “I guess that it’s not a bad job — it’s a very good job.”