NEW YORK -- Police have announced a new unit dedicated to patrolling Times Square following weeks of complaints about the panhandling tactics of costumed characters such as Elmo and Batman and topless women covered in body paint.
The area, one of the busiest and most crowded in the nation, eventually was going to get new officers who would work regular shifts and be assigned to the same posts every day, but the past few weeks of attention accelerated the decision to recruit, the New York Police Department said.
"It just seemed natural," Chief of Department James O'Neill said Wednesday.
The announcement came a week after Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio assigned a multiagency task force to figure out how to deal with the issue of costumed characters and so-called desnudas - women wearing thongs and covering themselves only with body paint - seeking tips in exchange for photos at the popular Manhattan tourist attraction.
In New York, toplessness and panhandling are legal. But that hasn't stopped the city's tabloids and some elected officials from calling loudly for action. Some have suggested regulating the transactions as a business, while others have floated the idea of uprooting pedestrian plazas.
Among the women who accept tips for their photos, Saira Nicole doesn't believe the practice should be an issue.
"People are having fun," she said recently. "There's no problem."
By the fall, police hope to double the number of officers assigned to the Crossroads of the World, from 50 to 100, O'Neill said.
Overall, crime is low in the area, though there are complaints to handle besides the panhandling characters, such as aggressive CD hawkers and vendors who sell their wares too close to businesses or the street.
The new officers will be tasked with getting to know the business owners, vendors and workers in the area in line with the neighborhood policing model being implemented in other precincts citywide, O'Neill said.
"Times Square is an important piece of real estate in New York City," he said. "And you have to pay attention to what goes on there."